“Are you Russian?” the woman asked in a Russian accent, and when I said I wasn’t, she moved on to ask someone else. It was intermission at Jonathan Leaf’s ambitious new verse play “Pushkin,” and she was looking for someone who could tell her how much of it was true. The gambling debts? The love triangles? The bizarre relationship with Czar Nicholas I? Surely all this couldn’t have happened to the father of Russian literature.
Yet it pretty much did. Like all authors of bio-plays, Mr. Leaf takes liberties here and there, but he sticks close to historical fact in tracing the last few years of Alexander Pushkin. Like another famous Alexander — Hamilton, who also died wastefully and too young in a 19th-century duel, and had his own eyebrow-raising relationship with one of his sisters-in-law — Pushkin led a life that lends itself to drama.
The tantalizing potential of his story remains out of reach, though, in the unwieldy “Pushkin.” There is no vigor to the language, no fever of emotion to match the intrigue of the action. Mr. Leaf composed nearly all of the verse attributed to Pushkin in the play (“to function in specific dramatic contexts,” he explains in a note in the script), but he has yet to figure out the piece’s balance and rhythms.
Its handsome yet airless world-premiere production, directed by Christopher McElroen for the American Vicarious, appears to mistake soberness for seriousness of purpose. Even in the intimacy of the Sheen Center’s black-box space, with spectators seated on either side of the stage, the action always feels removed in time and space, like a museum diorama. Unhelpfully, and perplexingly, Mr. McElroen stages many scenes with actors’ backs to half the audience.
Ian Lassiter’s Pushkin is woefully lacking in charisma — a seemingly deliberate choice, and in keeping with the production, but a mistake. When this Pushkin rouses himself from his reserve, he’s all pique and muffled resentment, with almost no discernible humor or warmth, no qualities to make him complex and sympathetic. So when we watch him snap at his beautiful young wife, Natalya (Jenny Leona), or bristle as the czar (Gene Gillette), his personal censor, publicly humiliates him, there’s not much reason to care.
And when Natalya’s sister Alexandra (Lexi Lapp), a huge fan of “Eugene Onegin,” falls for Pushkin despite herself, we wonder how she can be anything more than star-struck by this brooding jerk. Ms. Lapp, actually, succeeds better than her castmates at breaking through the production’s stultifying constraints. Making sense of her every line, she removes the obstacle to naturalness that verse can be when spoken. Her Alexandra is a living, breathing human being — albeit one with lamentable taste in men.
Through Aug. 25 at Sheen Center, Manhattan; www.sheencenter.org. Running time: 2 hours.