Unless you’re an aficionado of the ups and downs of the Russian revolution of the early 20th century, it’s very hard to keep track of the players without a scorecard.
Take the White Army. Anti-Communist, anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic, and loyal to the Russian Empire of the Tsar, they were routed by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War and scattered to the capitals of Europe. Many former noblemen under the Tsar wound up as taxi drivers and waiters in Paris.
And thus you have the background for “In Paris,” an 80-minute play adapted and directed by Dmitry Krymov from a short story by Russian Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin.
Mikhail Baryshnikov (yes, that Mikhail Baryshnikov) stars as a melancholy former White Army general, now a lonely refugee in Paris. He is not a taxi driver or a waiter, but a writer commissioned to write histories of the wars he fought in. But writing is a solitary job, and he is very much alone.
One dreary night he comes by chance upon a small Russian café situated next to a shop featuring “pink cone-shaped and yellow cube-shaped bottles of infused vodka, a platter of dried out deep fried pirozhki, a platter of hamburgers that had turned grey … .”
Undeterred, he enters the shop and proceeds through to the empty restaurant, where he is greeted in French by a soft-spoken waitress.
“Aren’t you Russian?” he says with surprise. “I am,” she responds. “Excuse me, I have formed a habit of speaking French to our clients.”
The waitress, played by Russian actress Anna Sinyakina, and the writer discuss the menu as he decides among the many dishes she suggests.
As the conversation continues in poetic rhythm in French and Russian, the English translation scrolls upward on a dark screen behind them. The whole stage remains dark, in fact, for most of the play, with focused spotlights on the principal actors and the tilted table between them.
The inconsequential conversation, laconic and brief, accentuates the palpable loneliness of the general and the deferential sweetness of the waitress.
And so he returns the next night. And the next.
He asks her out. She agrees. Then there is a frantic interlude where they each get ready for their date. He strips to his undershirt and shaves his face with a straight razor (facing the audience and without a mirror!) and she fiddles with a toga-like dress that she folds into various shapes.
Their evening out is a visual delight as they circle the stage in a cardboard cutout of a car and fall in love.
“Love makes even mules dance,” he says, “and I feel as if I were 20 again.”
And he actually dances!
At 64 Baryshnikov is not leaping into the air, but he twirls with undiminished grace and a thrilling nonchalance that brings this slight drama and beautifully staged production to a magical and satisfying end.
“In Paris” will continue at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., in Santa Monica, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. through April 21. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit www.TheBroadStage.com for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.