Recently, in Shakespeare in the Park’s Romeo and Juliet, Austin Pendleton played “the ghostly friar” Laurence. Now he’s acting another, spookier monastic in Wendy Kesselman’s dreadful musical adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Black Monk.” Kesselman has simplified and sentimentalized the tale: Her version concerns Andrei (Elon Rutberg), a student who returns to his childhood home and embarks on a frenzied career of painting and hallucinations, upsetting his nubile playmate, Tanya, and foster father, Igor.
Pendleton plays that hallucination, a barefoot friar attired in black robe and cowl. At first, he appears sinister, but eventually he takes on the air of a dotty uncle—reading other people’s mail, stealing sips of champagne, lolling on a rope swing, talking his way through his songs. When he does sing, you wish he wouldn’t. Kesselman (and Chekhov before her) has some notions about the interconnectedness of creativity and madness, but lyrics such as “You’ll be safe with me, you will find your heart/I’ll teach you to see all life is art” don’t encourage scrutiny. (There’s also a song devoted to varieties of produce.) One rather longs for this Black Monk, like so many of his brethren, to take a vow of silence.