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The Cherry Orchard

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 16, 2016

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. A New Version by Stephen Karam. Directed by Simon Godwin. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Movement by Jonathan Goddard. Original Music - Nico Muhly. Music Coordinator John Miller. Literal translation by Allison Horsley. Magic Consultant Paul Kieve. Vocal Coach Kate Wilson. Fight Consultant Thomas Schall. Cast: Diane Lane, Chuck Cooper, Tavi Gevinson, John Glover, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Harold Perrineau, and Joel Grey, with Kyle Beltran, Tina Benko, Susannah Flood, Maurice Jones, Quinn Mattfeld, Peter Bradbury, Philip Kerr, Lise Bruneau, Jacqueline Jarrold, Ian Lassiter, Carl Hendrick Louis.
Theatre: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues

John Glover, Joel Grey, Diane Lane, and Chuck Cooper
Photo by Joan Marcus

Stephen Karam has written a moving, surprising, and painfully relatable play about a family on the brink of crisis in a society devastated by social and economic uncertainly. That work, The Humans, is running at the Gerald Schoenfeld through the end of the year, and you really ought to see it if you haven't already. Karam's new version of The Cherry Orchard for Roundabout is another matter altogether. In attempting to do for a fading Russian family on the eve of revolution what he did for average Americans in The Humans, Karam, his director Simon Godwin, and pretty much everyone involved have only served up a steaming-hot reminder that Anton Chekhov's writings are best not messed with.

Some messing is always unavoidable, of course, when translating and adapting a play written more than a hundred years ago (in 1904, it was Chekhov's last) in a style so foreign from our own that it's practically inconceivable the playwright could actually have considered it the comedy he did. But one would hope that any update or rethink would put the play's needs ahead of the audience's to understand it—since, after all, satisfying the former will always automatically satisfy the latter.

That has not happened here. The characters' names, the scenario (it never feels quite right to call it a story) about a group of people trying to hold on to a past that decades earlier let go of them, and the oppressive presence of that titular group of trees are intact. The rest, however, is a threadbare impersonation of its former self, lacking either the seriousness, the vision, or just the bare content (the script has been reduced, with not-quite-surgical precision, to barely over two hours) needed to register emotionally or theatrically.

Diane Lane with Kyle Beltran, Tavi Gevinson, and
Celia Keenan-Bolger
Photo by Joan Marcus

The intention seems to be that the simmering class-consciousness struggles that within a matter of years will lead to sweeping political transformation within Russia are already eroding the personalities and the relationships of those who live there. As there's soon about to be little difference between the wealthy landowners and the struggling servants, so too is there scant distinction to be made between Ranevskaya (Diane Lane), who's returning to her home at the orchard after many years abroad, and her loopy brother Gaev (John Glover), and the social-climbing but morally bereft businessman Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau) or the eternal student and agitator Trofimov (Kyle Beltran). They and the others receive, more or less, equivalent stage time and attention, as though it's not really possible to understand any one without understanding the others.

Perhaps that could be true in a traditional rendering, but with nearly an hour of dialogue excised, there's not enough time for Karam to make that case. Certain characters attain undue prominence—I can't remember another production where the magic-performing governesss Charlotta, played here with an irritating, medicated perkiness by Tina Benko, came across as a major supporting character, for instance, or one where the comic bumblings of the clerk Yepikhodov (Quinn Mattfeld, doing his best) were seen as end unto themselves. This comes at the expense, naturally, of characters you may prefer to care about, such Gaev, or Ranevskaya's daughters Anya (Tavi Gevinson) and Varya (Celia Keenan-Bolger), all of whom deserve more focus on their heartbreaking tales.

The only one that comes through, even tangentially, is the main one. Ranevskaya's depleted fortune is forcing upon her the choice of selling the beloved orchard, the pride of the province, so she can make a living off the summer cottages erected in its place. She can't do that, of course—the orchard means too much to her. So will she choose poverty of riches or poverty of soul? And is there really any difference between the two?

Every character, every scene, ought to reflect and inform this basic dilemma, but the goalposts this time have been moved. You sense that what really animated Karam and Godwin was Troifmov's speech, which is for all intents and purposes aimed at 2016 America rather than those around him. "Right now, in our country, so few of us are doing meaningful work," he says, stoking his inner fires. "The majority of professionals aren't searching for anything, they're not advancing, they call themselves the intelligentsia, and, yes, they now address their hired help by their first names, very progressive, but they still treat poor people like they're animals."

As if the point isn't obvious enough, costume designer Michael Krass strips away classical expectations, changing what is a fairly straightforward, period-redolent plot early on into a relentlessly contemporary one by the final scene. Combined with Donald Holder's lights, Nico Muhly's self-consciously portentous music (played live, and lively, by an ensemble of four), and Scott Pask's set, which reenvisions each locale as being within the cobwebby nursery of Ranevskaya's dead child (the trees are precariously balanced mobiles), the play unfolds everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Paradoxically, this does not make it easier to absorb; rather, it imparts an air of desperation, as though no one watching could be expected to follow the action if it were done without the adornment.

This spin is neither compelling nor original, but it probably could have passed itself off as acceptable if Godwin had ensured that the actors were all in it together. Alas, there are about a dozen Cherry Orchards constantly on a collision course with each other, with only that of Peter Bradbury, who plays with just the right amount of underclass bravado a terrifyingly prophetic Passerby for about two minutes at the end of the second act, seeming correct.

Lane is doing hers on a red carpet outside the Golden Globes: replete with glamour, but absent any hint of either the agony of Ranevskaya's displacement or the rapture of ignoring it until it's too late. Beltran is giving a musical-drama performance that keeps anticipating songs that are not destined to arrive, a watchable but unruly combination of deep and shallow. Gevinson and Keenan-Bolger, who have both been superb in other things, are so stilted and one-dimensional they may as well be reciting their lines in front of mirrors. Perrineau starts off beautifully and naturalistically until he descends into pure movie-of-the-week melodrama post-intermission. Glover is his usual mannered self and Chuck Cooper, as the narcoleptic landowner Simeonov-Pischik, is utterly dependent on shtick; you do not believe for a second that you are seeing anyone other than the actors.

Then there's Joel Grey. Though technically playing the ancient servant Firs, he loads his portrayal with so much musical-comedy razzmatazz that he could just as well be a superannuated Amos Hart or George M. Cohan. The character is supposed to be a direct, tragic connection to a desiccated past, not a doddering commedia dell'arte export. But it's emblematic of the missteps of this production that no one was aware there was, or should be, any difference.

Grey's last scene, by the way, is notable for another reason beyond its eerily inappropriate mood. A sound, one of the modern theatre's most famous, is nowhere to be heard, despite its intense importance to the play. How vital is it? Karam left it in his script even though he felt so little compunction about, ahem, cutting everything else. It's just more proof that this Cherry Orchard is, ultimately, exactly like the deluded souls it documents: well meaning, maybe, but lacking any sense of what is truly necessary, what is not, and what anything it's saying means.

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