The Stenographer By Zoe Mavroudi Directed by Deb Randall; At Venus Theatre Play Shack to Sept. 25 Dostoevskian inspiration, Dada-esque absurdity!

Hook, Lines, and Drinker: An unlikely pair discusses Dostoevsky

Great playwrights can write dramas that depend on dialogue delivered while characters do nothing but sit around and drink. Zoe Mavroudi is an emerging playwright, not a great one.

The Stenographer, the Greek playwright’s second show for the stage, is getting its world premiere at Venus Theatre Play Shack, a Laurel, Md.-based company dedicated to producing works by female playwrights. The play certainly demonstrates Mavroudi’s potential—and perhaps her over-schooled intentions.

When the play opens, a well-dressed middle-aged man—satin vest, pressed pants, tie—is recounting a scene from Crime and Punishment and mixing himself a drink. Moments later, his guest, dressed in a black vinyl bustier and leather mini, with a pink feather boa hanging nearby, informs us that it’s 3 a.m., and this is vodka tonic No.6.

Two immediate observations. First, how is this guy still upright after six drinks? And second, it’s more fun to watch Richard Gere take Julia Roberts to the opera than watch an exotic dancer and a professor, played by amateur actors, sit around talking about Dostoevsky.

This erudite take on the oldest profession is as follows: In a dissertation written two decades ago, the professor traced parallels between Dostoevsky’s relationship with his stenographer wife, and the moral dilemmas faced by Raskolnikov, the Crime and Punishment protagonist, and his pious prostitute lover. In the present-day play, the professor’s life doesn’t so much imitate art as literary analysis initiates role play. Hence, a trip to a neighboring state, where he picks up an exotic dancer from Brooklyn and brings her back to his college town near New York City.

Geography appears to be a challenge for Mavroudi, who studied drama in New York on a Fulbright but apparently spent little time outside of Manhattan. Idiosyncrasies pile up to the point of distraction. Another example: It’s unlikely someone with a Ph.D. from Columbia would need 20 years to get tenure. (Then again, if he’s the kind of academic given to vodka binges...)

What Mavroudi is trying to do is certainly interesting, and could be theatrical catnip for academics and Russophiles. But she needs an editor, and more hands-on directing from Deb Randall. Both are to blame for the professor not behaving like a credible drunk. Try saying Sonia Semyonovna Marmeladova on just two shots of Smirnoff. That a sadsack alcoholic would teach Russian literature is never a question, but Frank Britton is too genteel for the task. He plays the professor with an inflated sense of 19th-century decorum, delivering lines like a voiceover actor Ken Burns would hire to read letters from a Confederate general.

Accents also dog Amy Rhodes, whose Jersey Shore affect ebbs and flows. But body language is just as problematic. Britton barely moves except to pour drinks, and Rhodes has all the charisma of a WalMart cashier who just worked the swing shift. Even off-duty, pole dancers are taut, leonine females, and this woman has reason to be on edge.

Mavroudi built several stakes-raising, book-throwing revelations into the script, but neither actor can shift gears. In the end, parallel plots of the play, novel, and the novelist’s life fit together as neatly as a set of Russian dolls. Give Mavroudi an A in Playwrighting 101, but The Stenographer is still a college drama.

Correction: Due to reporting errors, this review contained several factual inaccuracies. A character referred to as the Professor is told he's had six drinks, not 15. The Professor works in “a college town near New York,” according to the play's program, but not necessarily in upstate New York. And while the review refers to the Professor’s companion as both a “hooker” and an “exotic dancer,” she is only the latter.

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