The weird Chekhov Lizardbrain, which Pig Iron Theatre Company opened Friday night, falls somewhere to the side of farce, a mile or so from vaudeville, and pretty close to making sense.
It's a high-concept one-act piece that reveres the moody, restrained playwrighting of Anton Chekhov, even while it tears apart his theatrical searches for deep truths.
Chekhov Lizardbrain grew on me after I left the theater in the Latvian Society at Fifth and Spring Garden Streets, where the 75-minute play fans out on an all-but-bare stage, save for chairs and some Parsons tables.
The play, written by Robert Quillen Camp from what sounds like a group project, is piloted by a clever conceit. To understand it, we need a skim-the-surface spot of science:
The triune-brain theory developed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean early last century suggests that if you dissect a human brain and pull away the neocortex - the top layer of neurons found only in mammals - you see two other brain forms inside. One is like a dog's brain, and the deeper stem part is like a reptile brain. A lizardbrain, you could say.
So what? Well, MacLean suggested, the three parts represent the evolution of the inside of our heads. The top part gives us our human sophistication - symbolic thinking and language, for instance. The middle imparts emotion and a sense of hierarchy. The reptilian brain channels the basics: breathing, sleeping, thirst, being startled.
The play's conceit: Take the three specific brains, and convert them to three brothers fighting intensely over the house they've inherited - a ripe Chekhovian scenario - and you could have a good romp.
Forget that Chekhov was a doctor. The idea of giving his characters different traits locked by science is like tying together disparate threads. Surprise! Chekhov Lizardbrain is a nicely colored, if not especially rich, tapestry.
It's odd enough, with actor-musician James Sugg playing the title character, a demanding master of ceremonies with a lobotomized style of expression, always reminding us of the "menagerie of human possibility." The engaging Sugg also plays Dmitri, who wants to buy the brothers' house. Geoff Sobelle, Dito van Reigersberg and Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel give well- considered - you could say brainy - performances as the brothers.
In Dan Rothenberg's staging, Chekhov Lizardbrain occasionally trips over its studied peculiar style; it becomes momentarily ponderous, then streams into a chase around the stage.
I don't envy Rothenberg. He had to stick to a strict typing of characters to make Chekhov Lizardbrain work, and generally he succeeded. Given its potential for the bizarre, the script and its staging should be funnier - a lot funnier. As it is, the play's more like a curiosity, best when you can feel Chekhov's body turning six feet below.
Written by Robert Quillen Camp, directed by Dan Rothenberg, set by Anna Kiraly, costumes by Olivera Gajic, lighting by James Clotfelter, sound by Nick Kourtides. Presented by Pig Iron Theatre Company.
The cast: James Sugg (Dmitri/Chekhov), Geoff Sobell (Sascha), Dito van Reigersberg (Nikolai), Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel (Pyotr).
Playing at the Latvian Society, 531 N. Seventh St., through April 15. Tickets: $20-$30. Information: 215-627-1883 or www.lizardbraintheplay.com.