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The Present
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Broadway review: In The Present, Cate Blanchett does Chekhov, Australian style

Written by
David Cote

Chekhov never wrote a play called The Present; that’s what Australian adapter Andrew Upton calls his remodeled Platonov. Then again, Chekhov never wrote a play called Platonov; that’s one of the titles historians have applied to the Russian dramatist’s untitled, unwieldy, unfinished work, found in a safe-deposit box 16 years after his death. I’ve never read or seen the piece: An uncut staging would run about five hours. Young Chekhov wrote it while in medical school, and by all accounts, it’s a dramaturgical train wreck (ending with suicide on actual train tracks—eat your heart out, Martin McDonagh!).

Making its way to Broadway via Australia in a production by the Sydney Theatre Company, The Present is selling briskly due not to audience demand for Chekhov juvenilia but because of its leading lady: Cate Blanchett. Upton is her husband; in previous years, he’s taken a whack at Ibsen, Genet, Gorky and Molière. You’d think that intimate contact with such great writers (even in translation) would rub off, but talent contagion is not in evidence. This crass, seriocomic script lumbers along for three palpable hours, alternately tedious and odious, expecting us to care about its petty, miserable, bed-hopping Russian characters without giving them witty or touching things to say. “I’m so bored. Bored and disappointed,” moans Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) during her boozy, interminable birthday party. She speaks for all of us.

Although Upton made innumerable cuts and changes to the original text—the main being setting the action in the late 1980s—there are glimpses of Chekhovian tropes: cynical doctors, romantic vacillation and a country estate—the latter owned by Blanchett’s wealthy, ennui-ridden widow. Among her birthday-party attendees is old flame Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), a skirt-chasing schoolmaster who combines elements of Dr. Astrov and Uncle Vanya but minus the passion or pathos of either. Roxburgh struts and strains to convey dissolute sexiness, but his irresistibility to Anna and two other ladies requires an active imagination. Michael Frayn and David Hare each wrestled with this material with much greater success in the past, but then, they’re great playwrights. Unless you cut Platonov savagely to the bone or find a novel approach, it’s going to come across as callow, sub-Chekhov stuff.

The cast is filled out by Australian troupers braying and shouting their way through inert, talky scenes. Upton has winnowed the dramatic crux to Platonov’s pathetic sexual conquests and subsequent existential dread with multiple gunshots and a large explosion to vary the mood. Blanchett is transfixing as usual in her exquisitely-bored-yet-still-hungry routine. In the second act, after Anna threatens to blow up her party guests with dynamite and fails, there’s a pointlessly vulgar, vodka-drenched dance break. You kind of wish the detonator had worked.

Ethel Barrymore Theatre (Broadway). By Andrew Upton. Based on Anton Chekhov’s Platonov. Directed by John Crowley. With Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh. Running time: 3hrs. One intermission. Through Mar 19. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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