In the beginning there was a play by Anton Chekov that was simply called “a long play without a title”. He’d written a first draft of it in 1878, later called it Fatherlessness. He gave it to his older brother Alexander who told him he found it untruthful, and suggested he give up playwrighting altogether. But Anton persisted and felt he had finished it in 1881, though he worked further on it until 1883. He could not find a producer and it took until 1923 even to get it published. In 1887 he finally had a production — of his second play, Ivanov. Finally, a playwright for the ages was born. It’s funny how that can happen. Tennessee Williams’ first, Battle of Angels, tanked in Boston on its way to New York, Arthur Miller’s The Man Who Had All The Luck had a similar false start. They probably knew that Chekov had a bad time of it first time out, and forged ahead, separating the men from the boys.
Michael Frayn, the British playwright, adapted Ivanov in 1984 and called it Wild Honey. Starring Ian McKellan, it managed only 28 performances. Now the highly regarded Sydney Theatre Company has sent us its version — a new adaptation “after Anton Chekov’s Ivanov” written by Andrew Upton and directed by John Crowley. It’s being played now on Broadway for a limited 14-week run by the company from that theatre which is headed by Cate Blanchett and leading man Richard Roxburger, with 13 actors from the company rounding out the cast.
Now set in a lovely country home in 1999 in post-perestroika Russia, it is simply the story of a weekend house party to celebrate the 40th birthday of Anna Petrovna, owner of the house, and the guests will include lovers, friends, family. All in all some 13 of them will participate in this happy occasion and by the end of the weekend virtually every relationship will have been wounded, destroyed, or enhanced by the revelations that come not swiftly but with great clarity. By Monday evening all lives will have been changed.
The company of actors is well practiced, having had a success with the play at home in Australia. For those who have admired Cate Blanchett as a lovely film actress of power, they are in for a pleasant surprise as they see her cavorting about and even dancing on a tabletop to some Euro-pop. Her director, Crowley, tells us “she’s a complete clown” and when needed, she proves him right.
There are indeed laughs in this very long play. At 2 hours and 50 minutes in four very long scenes, there is too much meat on its bones to support frivolity, welcome as it is. And then in the final moments things grow heavy and dark. I was reminded of another family play, The Humans, which dealt with half as many members of a family and friends, but in considerably less time it managed to probe more deeply into each character, and to deliver the comical moments more amusingly as well. This company is certainly capable; it’s the material that hasn’t made up its mind whether to probe and poke or to just let it all hang out. Crowley, who admitted Chekhov was not his favorite playwright, agreed to direct this excellent cast with a keen eye for the humor he found in it. Always interesting, I found myself only occasionally viscerally connected to the material as it was spooned out to us taking masses of minutes to allow time for a number of monologues telling us to live bravely and with little concern for risk, for the cautious life is the unfulfilled one, and this play contains a gaggle of unhappy souls who are doing their damnedest to muddle through. It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.
We must be grateful to Ms. Blanchett for taking on the rigors of Broadway, for she certainly brightens its season. And I for one loved having a look at the 13 actors who joined her in coming halfway round the world to give us a sample of their first rate work. Some of them should stick around and give Broadway a gander with Ms. Blanchett’s “Blanche” in Streetcar or her take on Hedda Gabler, both of which she had great personal success with in her homeland.
Running Time: About three hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Present plays through March 19, 2017 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater – 243 West 47th Street in New York City. For tickets, call TELECHARGE at (212) 239-6200, bu them at the box office, or purchase them online.