June 8, 2015

Buried deep in the show, the old joke got a warm, rolling laugh on Friday night from the crowd at City Center. “How do you feel about our government?” “Same as about my wife. Kind of fear, kind of love, kind of want a different one.” But onstage in “Smile at Us, Oh Lord,” a mournful, dreamlike play from the Vakhtangov State Academic Theater in Moscow, the line doesn’t even get a smirk from the stolid stonecutter Efraim Dudak. It’s the early 20th century in Lithuania, and Efraim’s son, Girsch, wants a new government so fiercely that he’s just shot the Russian czar’s top man in Vilnius. So Efraim and two friends — Shmulé-Sender, whose beloved horse pulls the carriage, and Avner, a sweet pauper with a prosperous past — have embarked on a road trip from their shtetl, hoping to reach Girsch before he is either hanged or sent to Siberia. Adapted from a novel by the Israeli-based Lithuanian author Grigory Kanovich, “Smile at Us” — presented by the Cherry Orchard Festival and performed in Russian with English supertitles — has none of the dazzling glamour of the Vakhtangov’s “Eugene Onegin,” which the company performed at City Center a year ago.