Nigro describes the “default setting” for Pushkin as an “ongoing surreal ball” created by lights and music with actors moving in and out of focus and no breaks in the action. Otherwise, a small desk and chair DR, DRC a large potted plant, RC an empty oval picture frame, UC an empty doorway, L a small sofa, DL a round wooden table with chairs, and enough room C for couples to dance. The play requires 5 men (two playing two parts, one playing three) and three women (two playing two parts). All eight actors are onstage as the Chopin piano music ends; we hear wind blowing as lights come up on the stage and Gogol, in the UC doorway, looks at Pushkin at the DR desk and describes Pushkin waiting to duel with the man he believes is his wife’s lover. We hear crows cawing and Pushkin’s wife, Natalya, standing with her sisters Katya and Alexandra upstage of the sofa, says that none of this is real, that it happened quite differently and could not have been so foolish. Pushkin tells her that she has no guilt in the matter, and Gogol repeats the sentence. As Pushkin and Natalya look at each other, we hear a gun shot “very loud” and crows cawing and flapping their wings. Pushkin turns to his desk and begins writing as we hear Chopin’s 19th Etude, Opus 25, Number 7, in C sharp minor. D’Anthes and Van Heeckeren join the three women in quiet conversation and Gogol watches the scene and gradually moves to sit at the DL table. Benchendorf, who has been standing inside the oval frame, tells Pushkin that everything he writes must be adjudicated by the Secret Police. Snatching the manuscript, Benckendorf says that just as Pushkin gets pleasure from writing, so he gets pleasure from spying on people. He leaves and our focus shifts to D’Anthes, who has just told a funny story to Natalya and Katya, who are laughing. Alexandra talks to Pushkin, who says that Natalya is the most beautiful woman in Petersburg. Van Heeckeren (whom Alexandra calls “the old gargoyle”) leads D’Anthes off left, telling him it’s bed time. Alexandra urges Pushkin to talk with Natalya and pulls Katya off after D’Anthes and Van Heeckeren. Natalya says that dancing is the only really satisfying form of intimacy. Pushkin says that he has a bad knee and Natalya says that she is fickle and has no dowry. She hurries off to avoid dancing with Benckendorf, who tells Pushkin that the Tsar wants him to turn his play into a novel. Pushkin says he can’t change what he has written and Benckendorf tells him that from now on he is to submit everything he writes directly to him before publication can be permitted. The sounds of the dance are overtaken by “eerie gypsy carnival music.”
Gogol and Pushkin walk in the gypsy camp at Carnival as Death (a man in a black cloak with a skeleton mask), Leopard Girl (scantily clad in a leopard mask and long tail), a Maniac, and Gorilla run on and off. At the DL table a gypsy who looks like the Queen of Spades tells Pushkin that he will marry a beautiful woman and live in exile in a cold and remote place. Love will be the cause of his death. She tells Gogol that he will die insane with leeches on his nose, burning his life’s work. Immediately, from another time and place, Natalya speaks to Pushkin who turns to her as Gogol and the gypsy fade into the shadows. Natalya tells Pushkin that she can’t marry him and goes to the sofa to talk to her sisters. Benckendorf tells Pushkin he’s better off without her as the light fades on them and comes up on Van Heeckeren telling D’Anthes to watch out for Benckendorf and to come home soon so he won’t be thrown in the brig for missing roll call again. As music plays, Alexandra tells Katya that the handsome Baron D’Anthes is looking at her, but Katya says that he is looking at Natalya. Gogol asks Natalya to dance; she refuses, but accepts immediately when D’Anthes asks her.
Lights come back up on Pushkin and Benckendorf, who has some suggestions for improving Eugene Onegin and wonders why women are so attracted to Pushkin despite the fact that his great-grandfather came from Africa. Pushkin suggests that the Tsar could use him on a diplomatic mission outside of Russia, but Benckendorf says that Pushkin isn’t going anywhere. Pushkin says he just wants to be left alone and goes as we hear the sound of a violin playing Paganini’s 24th Caprice and see Goncharov, the girls’ father, who stops playing as Natalya asks him what he wanted to see her about since all he wants to do is torture the violin and play chess with the dog. Goncharov tells her that he can’t afford to feed his daughters any more and she should marry Pushkin. Natalya walks to Pushkin and tells him that she has been instructed by her father to accept the marriage proposal, warning Pushkin that his happiness will end after his first ejaculation. As she goes to tell her family they are engaged Pushkin wonders why getting what one has desperately wanted feels as if one has begun to die. Benckendorf appears to congratulate Pushkin and Pushkin says that he needs a letter for his mother-in-law stating that he is not suspected of any criminal activity. Benckendorf sits at the desk, writes the letter, and the lights fade on them.
We hear the sounds of owls and a ticking clock as Pushkin asks Natalya if she is a virgin. She thinks the question is cretinous and tells Pushkin that if she falls asleep he is not to wake her but to go ahead on his own. She walks into the darkness and Pushkin follows her. We hear Natalya moaning in pleasure as the lights come up on Katya knitting and Alexandra reading on the sofa. They wonder what Pushkin is doing to make Natalya utter such sounds. The sounds stop but then begin again and the girls walk off to go to bed. We hear music and are back again at the ball as Pushkin and Natalya come in, speaking about losing the child that Natalya was carrying. She says she is not going to let him touch her any more, that he taught her to feel sexual pleasure and the result of that mad animal ecstasy has been the death of a child. She sends Pushkin for punch and asks “pretty boy” D’Anthes what he’s looking at and sends him away. Katya tells her sister she is very attracted to D’Anthes and Pushkin tells Natalya that all the men in St. Petersburg, including the Tsar, are lusting after her. Gogol asks to kiss Natalya’s hand but she refuses and goes off to dance with D’Anthes. Benckendorf tells Pushkin that the Tsar has offered him the position of Imperial Archivist so he can write and Natalya can attend the Imperial balls. Beckendorf implies that the beauty of Pushkin’s wife may have saved his life and suggests that Pushkin have the mole on his right buttock removed. As Natalya giggles with her sisters, D’Anthes tells Van Heeckeren that he is madly in love with her, an emotion the older man finds juvenile and absurd. D’Anthes watches Natalya move from her sisters toward Pushkin and Benckendorf. Natalya tells Pushkin not to be jealous because men look at her and “storms over” to D’Anthes and Van Heeckeren as Benckendorf offers to spy on her. He and Pushkin stand behind the oval frame as Natalya tells D’Anthes that her husband is insanely jealous although she has done nothing wrong and could never betray him. They dance as Pushkin tells Benckendorf that he wants to kill D’Anthes, and the lights begin changing to the cold blue of the show’s beginning and we hear wind. Gogol describes the “etiquette” of the duel, the cold, dark afternoon with knee-deep snow, and Pushkin rushing forward to get as close as he can before he shoots. We hear the sounds of a gunshot and crows scattering as the lights go to black.
As the second act begins, all the characters except Natalya are on stage “like mourners in the shadows.” Gogol begins recapitulating the duel but says he can’t get it right, that creation, like love, is suicide. We hear crows flapping and cawing as Natalya enters, late from the ball, to find Pushkin at his desk. She says she thinks D’Anthes is in love with her but wants Pushkin to leave her alone. Lights fade on them and come up on D’Anthes moaning and pulling his hair over his desire for Natalya. Van Heeckeren thinks they should take a vacation in Venice but accedes to D’Anthes’ request that he talk with Natalya, saying that he hopes that once D’Anthes has fornicated with her the two men can be close again, as they used to be. As Van Heeckeren talks with Natalya, we learn from her that other people, even her children, seem pointless. Van Heeckeren tells her that he has taken steps to adopt D’Anthes so that he will inherit a fortune, and he asks her to give D’Anthes “just a bit of tenderness.” He says that there will be terrible consequences if she does not see D’Anthes. Natalya crosses to the Baron and tells him that she can’t run away with him. He pulls out a pistol and threatens to kill himself, but she says she will consider letting him “take certain liberties.”
Our attention shifts to Pushkin and Alexandra who tells him he should have married her but he was blinded by Natalya’s beauty. She asks him if he would like to have sexual intercourse with her and when he says that women are exactly like men she says that if they were they’d all be morons. Katya brings D’Anthes a message from Natalya that she will meet him in the arbor by the stream but she cannot remember the time. Katya begins to cry and D’Anthes sits beside her and puts his arm around her to comfort her. Then as Pushkin, Alexandra, and Gogol are walking at the Goncharov’s, D’Anthes leaves Katya and feigns interest in the potted plant. Gogol says that Benckendorf wants him to submit his work to the censor, like Pushkin, who, Gogol adds, always goes too far. Alexandra greets D’Anthes, who says he is very fond of Katya. Alexandra calls Katya over to tell her this good news and pulls Pushkin and Gogol away from “the lovebirds.” Katya tells D’Anthes that she loves him and that he should pretend to love her so that Pushkin will not shoot him for chasing Natalya. Benckendorf tells Pushkin that he has some suggestions for improving his story about the Queen of Spades, states that he and the author are very much alike, and reads a letter addressed to Pushkin that asserts that Pushkin is a cuckold and that Natalya has been fucking D’Anthes in the gazebo. When Pushkin wants to know who wrote the letter, Benckendorf tells him that it is anonymous, “although the handwriting does look familiar.” He says that copies have been sent to everyone Pushkin knows. Natalya asks why Alexandra’s gold cross was found in the sofa in Pushkin’s bedroom. When told of the letter, she calls her relationship with D’Anthes a “harmless flirtation” and accuses Pushkin of “wallowing in filth” with her sister. Both deny the alleged involvements but Pushkin says he is going to resolve the situation once and for all.
Van Heeckeren tells Pushkin that he intercepted Pushkin’s letter challenging D’Anthes to a duel and asks Pushkin to forgive, urging him to wait two weeks. Pushkin agrees and leaves as D’Anthes asks what business Van Heeckeren has with Pushkin. Van Heeckeren says that Pushkin has challenged D’Anthes to a duel and, although the older man urges him to settle things amicably, D’Anthes says he will give Pushkin two weeks to “back down” and then he is going to shoot him in the stomach and watch him die. Katya tells Alexandra and Pushkin that she is pregnant and, when D’Anthes enters, Alexandra manipulates him into agreeing to marry Katya. They tell Natalya the good news and Katya drags D’Anthes off to plan for the wedding. As Pushkin sits drinking, Van Heeckeren brings in papers stating that Pushkin withdraws his challenge, and that D’Anthes will marry Katya. Natalya wonders if D’Anthes is marrying Katya to protect Natalya’s good name, and she tells Pushkin that no one knows or loves her, that she is nothing. She then tells Katya that she is happy for her and leaves as D’Anthes enters. Katya tells him that she will do anything to make him happy, that love is “total enslavement . . . death.” She says she’ll be waiting in bed for D’Anthes, but he sits and drinks, mirrored by Pushkin at his desk, also drinking. Gogol wonders aloud why D’Anthes married Katya and Benckendorf tells Pushkin he admires a man who trusts his wife. Natalya asks Pushkin why he is drinking so much, and Pushkin is disturbed that she has been talking with D’Anthes and then tries to insult the Baron, but D’Anthes refuses to be offended. When Van Heeckeren enters, Pushkin tells him that he is “a ridiculous old woman, a loathsome, grotesque, walking piece of excrement,” and accuses him of writing the letters proclaiming Pushkin a cuckold. He knocks the older man down and kicks him in the buttocks and Van Heeckeren “scuttles away.”
D’Anthes, seeing Van Heeckeren’s clothes are dirty and his nose is bleeding, learns that Pushkin is responsible but says he thinks Van Heeckeren did write the letters, Nonetheless, although Van Heeckeren pleads with him, D’Anthes is determined to kill Pushkin. Van Heeckeren urges Natalya to stop the duel, but she says she is powerless, that the world would be a better place if all the men killed each other. After the older man leaves, Alexandra tells Natalya that she always thought a woman had written the letters. “Eerie blue light” comes up on Pushkin DR and D’Anthes UL and we hear the sound of wind as the characters take the positions they had at the beginning of the play. Van Heeckeren has provided the men with pistols and D’Anthes tells Pushkin that even God wants to sleep with Natalya. Pushkin says that he’ll just have to kill God and that to love any mortal creature is always fatal. They stand, motionless, as Gogol moves DL describing Pushkin rushing toward D’Anthes, who shoots, hitting Pushkin in the stomach. Pushkin fires from the ground and D’Anthes falls. But the bullet was deflected by a button and D’Anthes lives “a long and full life.” Pushkin suffers “unspeakably” and dies the next day. Gogol says he cannot write about this, that all writing is absolute futility. The actors are frozen as Benckendorf strolls to the center doorway and says that Pushkin’s death, “over a few stupid letters,” is a horrible tragedy for all of Russia. Benckendorf says that perhaps now he can screw Pushkin’s wife.