Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Theater Review: Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard,’ Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Co.

More than a century after his death, Anton Chekhov continues to offer beguiling vistas and unforeseen quicksand for unwary theater companies. The Cherry Orchard, the version staged by New York's Roundabout Theatre Co. which just closed a week and a half ago at the American Airlines Theatre, is no exception. It can feel so contemporary in depicting class divisions, the illusions by which people live their daily lives, and their pain on feeling increasingly cut off from nature. But the playwright’s close, unhurried attention to character can lead to a mistaken desire to “juice” up the play, and its tragicomic balance can be easily upset.

The Roundabout production illustrated this to a marked degree. Not knowing Russian, I can’t comment on the quality of the translation by Stephen Karam (who provided the Roundabout with a prior triumph with his own The Humans). But so much of the rest of this production was uneven.

Chekhov’s final play, first staged the year of his death (1904), is a dramedy involving mortality and the crisis of the old order, an aristocracy that we know is doomed. The stand-ins for this enervated class are Lyubov Ranevskaya, returning to her provincial childhood home from abroad after the failure of a relationship, and her older brother, Gaev. Both idle away their time in nostalgia and melancholy about their better days growing up on the estate, unable to address the massive debt that will lose them their home.

It was no fault of Diane Lane that this production did not take flight. The film actress was alternately foolish and touching as a spendthrift aristocrat all too bound up in memories of her home—many involving her dead son. John Glover, as Gaev, made the most of a character that can feel maddeningly ineffectual to audiences.

As Lopakhin, Harold Perrineau represented an example not so much of color-blind but color-conscious casting. It was impossible to watch his parvenu developer, the son of a serf, without thinking of this African-American actor coming to prominence only about a half-century since the epic civil-rights legislation of the Sixties. Perrineau made the most of his big scene, when Lopakhin, wild with joy over how far he has come but still feeling an awkward fit among the landed gentry he’s about to displace, gets drunk.

This drunk scene, though, also demonstrated some of the problems in the overall conception by Simon Godwin, who, at the National Theatre, has become one of Britain’s leading directors. The focus on Lopakhin’s awkwardness should have been enough to drive this scene, but Godwin has blown up the action in a distracting manner, with a large, loud party.

Meanwhile, Godwin made another choice, with the conclusion, that veered in the opposite direction. As in the original play, the beloved old retainer, Firs (played here by the appropriately beloved theater legend, Joel Grey), is forgotten and left to die alone in the abandoned house, a tragicomic symbol of his employer’s ultimate carelessness. 

But, in ending on a dying fall, this otherwise noisy Cherry Orchard missed the most significant sound effect in Chekhov’s stage directions: the sound of an ax, beginning its fatal work of destroying a forest—and an entire sociopolitical system that fails to see its own collapse.

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