What do Anton Chekhov, Jerry Seinfeld, and Stephen Karam have in common?
Karam himself explained the connection in a 2012 conversation at the University of Scranton.
“I think I discovered Chekhov, what he does...almost gave me permission to be myself. He tells stories that are quite beautiful in structure but seem to go nowhere—he’s almost like Seinfeld, his plays seem to be about nothing.”
But the idea that Chekhov’s plays are about nothing is misleading, as Karam goes on to explain.
“You spend an evening with these cast of characters where not so much happens but you feel like somehow every facet of humanity has been touched upon. There’s an epicness to something that seems so ordinary and so small.”
Like Chekhov, Karam, author of The Humans, Sons of the Prophet, and Speech and Debate, uses “ordinary and small” moments to allow big emotional truths to surface. In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov uses the impending loss of a family home to explore major changes in the Russian class system and our ability to endure through change. In The Humans, Karam uses a quotidian family Thanksgiving to explore the “black pit of dread and malaise” in America in the years since 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, and our relationship to fear.
Karam and Chekhov both weave comic and tragic moments into their plays and build realistic worlds with little plot. While modern American audiences are familiar with this approach, it was so revolutionary in Chekhov’s day that an entirely new approach to acting and directing was required. In an era when stories and plays were emotionally melodramatic and featured important, powerful figures, Chekhov wrote about ordinary people. As his contemporary and fellow writer Leo Tolstoy wrote to Chekhov, “And where does one get with your heros? From the privy to the sofa and from the sofa back to the privy?” Chekhov’s work paved the way for what might be referred to as modern American naturalism.
Karam exemplifies a new generation of naturalist playwrights, including Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, John, The Flick), Amy Herzog (4000 Miles, The Great God Pan, Bellville), and Steven Levenson (The Language of Trees, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, and Dear Evan Hansen) whose appeal is evident in how often their works are produced in regional theatres across the country. This group, along with Richard Nelson (The Apple Family plays), create compelling stories that seem to reflect ordinary 21st century life yet invite audiences to see the whole of society more clearly.
Consider the parallels between Karam and Chekhov in these quotes.
The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s 2015 review of The Humans
“...the play is rackingly funny even as it pummels the heart and scares the bejesus out of you … The whole hailstorm of human grief is pummeling them even at Thanksgiving, and yet they still make bad jokes, forgive betrayals and retreat into pettiness, overdrink and regret it, count calories and fail to, are piteous and angry and as overflowing with love for their failed little pod as Karam evidently is with ours.”
The New York Times critic Alexis Soloski reviewing a production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM in 2015
“Nothing happens in the plays of Anton Chekhov. But everything happens, too. People complain about restaurants, sing comic songs, make speeches in praise of bookcases even as they’re loving and losing and dying.”
Chekhov subtitled The Cherry Orchard “a comedy,” possibly because, while tragedy occurs in the play, at the end the characters move forward into the future. The same argument could be made for both Sons of the Prophet and The Humans: nothing is perfect, homes may be lost, but the characters move forward into the uncertain future.
The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage