Think Borat meets Corner Gas. A Canadian innocent experiences the bleakness of post-Communist, post-Chernobyl Eastern Europe and the gentle absurdism of Chekhov. Throw in Bryan Adams and vodka, radiation poisoning, anti-semitism and self-reflexive theatre jokes, and you’ve got Vancouver playwright Aaron Bushkowsky’s quirky, fascinating but radically uneven black comedy, My Chernobyl, getting its world premiere in Richmond’s Gateway Studio theatre.
Bushkowsky explains in a program note how his father’s Ukrainian and Belarusian relatives would tell him grim stories about life in the old country. In the play a bewildered Canadian playwright named David (Andrew McNee) travels to a village in Belarus to find the relative to whom his late father has left all his money. There he meets a collection of wily peasants and a beautiful cousin desperate to escape the dead-end horrors of a ravaged land. You don’t know whether to laugh or slit your throat.
Yuri (Allan Morgan), an incurable optimist who sells stunted potatoes, chooses to laugh, encouraged by his omnipresent vodka bottle. His stone-faced friend Katrina (Colleen Wheeler) never laughs. That has to do with all her diseases and family deaths caused by radiation from the 1986 nuclear disaster in nearby Chernobyl. Young, pretty Natasha (Celine Stubel) has also suffered radiation-induced cancer and a dead child but she hasn’t given up trying to make a life for herself. When she discovers that the rich Canadian is her cousin, she cooks up a scam with her boyfriend Alex (Jacob Richmond) to arrange a temporary marriage with David. Yuri and Katrina simply extort money from him.
Bushkowsky’s comedy is subtle and works best in Stubel’s delightful deadpan. Even when trying to seduce David out of his money, her naturally sexy Natasha relies more on charm and logic. “What would God do in this situation? I believe He would give me the cash.” Stubel is definitely the play’s shining star.
The other actors struggle to harmonize the play’s severe contrast of tones. Veterans Morgan and Wheeler, two of our best, work their tragic clown characters hard for laughs that only sometimes come. McNee’s hangdog David is too whiney for my taste. They’re also weighed down with personal baggage that never gets fully delivered. David has family problems, marital problems, financial problems, theatrical problems. A portentous subplot involving his secret Jewish roots and Katrina’s xenophobic anti-semitism goes nowhere.
Britt Small’s stylized direction succeeds in fits and starts, but by the end the dances between scenes start to feel superfluous and the play slows to a crawl. Smart comedy that reminds you how lucky you are to live here, My Chernobyl needs some time to work out its kinks.