The more you see Anton Chekhov’s final play, the weirder it seems. Approaching the end of his life, the Russian master was pulling away from his preferred, tragicomic-naturalist mode and veering toward symbolism. Before he died from tuberculosis in 1904, Chekhov had been talking about a new project involving a ghost, marooned arctic explorers and a ship crushed by ice. The Cherry Orchard contains distinctly bizarre touches: unexplained offstage noises, ominous portents of revolution and a morbid ending that’s nearly Beckettian. It makes sense for the designers of the Roundabout’s revival to opt for expressionism and for British director Simon Godwin to steer the actors—including the luminous Diane Lane—into extremes of emotional volatility.
I’m all for director’s theater when it comes to classics; the only question is whether a new frame or filter works on its own terms. And with this thoughtful but often schematic and disjointed Cherry Orchard, the answer is: only in spurts.
Godwin works well with several excellent actors. As Ranevskaya, a land-poor aristocrat unwilling to accept the loss of her estate with its spacious orchard, Lane crafts a commanding performance of tremendous passion and openness. When her reunion with perpetual student Trofimov (an ardent Kyle Beltran) dredges up the memory of her son’s drowning, Lane’s sorrowful meltdown chops your heart in two. All the actors' bodies are in uncommonly strong dialogue with each other: Lane stroking Beltran's cheek or Susannah Flood's servant-girl Dunyasha literally flinging herself at the saucy Yasha (Maurice Jones). As Ranevskaya’s blustery brother Gaev, John Glover is arch and peppery as always. Chuck Cooper uses that magnificent booming bass and his bearish physique as narcoleptic landowner Simeonov-Pischik, and Celia Keenan-Bolger makes a memorably pinched Varya, Ranevskaya’s dowdy daughter. In the tricky role of Lopakhin, a peasant turned businessman, Harold Perrineau sensitively navigates the American accents (racial and immigration anxieties) that adapter Stephen Karam (The Humans) layers into his lean, accessible script.
Designer Scott Pask renders the cherry trees as Alexander Calder–like hanging mobiles, which is a nice idea that doesn’t go very far. The same may be said of Godwin’s other ideas, such as moving the unseen third-act costume party to center stage and historicizing costumes to suggest social upheaval. Chekhov purists will be angered by the omission of key sound effects at the end when servant Firs (the great Joel Grey) essentially curls up and dies; those not conversant may simply feel unrooted in the action. In the end, by stylizing Chekhov's world and rendering cultural details abstractly, the human stakes and basic relationships are drained of power. The Cherry Orchard is still an odd play and can survive harder ax blows, but this attempt is just so much peeled bark.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Stephen Karam. Directed by Simon Godwin. With Diane Lane, John Glover, Harold Perrineau. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Through Dec 4. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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