Under Yelena

InterAct Theatre Company at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through April 12, 569-9700

I wouldn't have thought that there could be too much poetry in a play, but this play makes me wonder.

Two Soviet scientists are living in a shabby concrete bunker within the contaminated radioactive zone at Chernobyl a few years after the near meltdown of the nuclear reactor. Their mission: to account for the fuel rods, which have mysteriously disappeared after the accident, and which may have solidified, leached away or vaporized. Ruta (Lisbeth Bartlett) is a hard-nosed party member with misplaced faith in the efficiency of the system and the good intentions of the commissars. Antonas (Tim Moyer), soaked in Stolichnaya, occupies his spare time dissecting sparrows, larks, stillborn infant rats and translucent desiccated kestrel eggs.

Minneapolis-based playwright Buffy Sedlachek's new play Under Yelena, receiving its world premiere at InterAct Theatre under the direction of Seth Rozin, is only in part a scientific whodunnit (or rather a where'd-it-go). And it's only partly an exposé of the disastrous inefficiencies of Soviet technology (the concrete "sarcophagus" designed to contain the damaged reactor is crumbling, and the reactor's lid, which had hit the roof when it exploded, is teetering precariously and threatens to bring down the whole sarcophagus with it), and the inefficiencies of Soviet bureaucracy (the scientists are protected from radiation only by plastic shower caps and duct tape, and the long-awaited shipment of lead protective suits turns out to contain lead pencils).

Under Yelena is about a lot more - and that's the problem. The Soviet Union is crumbling; the scientists argue about their respective Ukrainian national identities; newly liberated from Soviet domination, they embrace the "Cossack spirit" of their native republic; and Ruta recollects and struggles with Ukrainian patriarchy. The play is bursting its lid with metaphors: the characters talk about being blinded by the sun; about the Polaroid photographs which, like the colleagues whose images they capture, are fading away; about being plunged at birth into the icy river, so that you are made strong if you are not first killed by the experience; about crying one's grandmother's tears; and about being in the "house at the end of the world" of the Ukrainian folktale, where the monster Yelena rests her gigantic hand on your roof and must be kept awake lest she fall asleep and crush you.

Antonas, with his vodka and his crazy ideas, likens himself to a poet; and he calls Ruta a poet when, like him, she begins to think creatively, defiantly and humanely.

Sedlachek is evidently a poet, too, with all the talk of kestrel eggs, icy rivers and sleeping giants.

I wouldn't have thought that there could be too much poetry in a play, but this play makes me wonder. Not analytical enough to be a sociological tract, not engaging enough to be a techno-thriller, not deep enough to be a character study (despite the able, if unidiomatic, performances by Moyer and Bartlett), and, thankfully, not preposterous enough even to try to be a love story, Under Yelena is weighed down by its own poetry which, like the giant in the folktale, threatens to roll over and crush the play if it isn't continually prodded out of its somnolence.

-Cary M. Mazer