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Broadway Reviews

The Present

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 8, 2017

The Present, after Anton Chekhov's Platonov, by Andrew Upton. Directed by John Crowley. Scenic and costume design by Alice Babidge. Lighting design by Nick Schlieper. Composer and sound design by Stefan Gregory. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, with Anna Bamford, Andrew Buchanan, David Downer, Eamon Farren, Martin Jacobs, Brandon McClelland, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Susan Prior, Chris Ryan, Toby Schmitz.
Theatre: Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett
Photo by Joan Marcus

A lot of people have trouble turning 40 without some consternation, and Anna Petrovna is no exception. But as Cate Blanchett plays her in The Present, Andrew Upton's play that just opened at the Ethel Barrymore in a production from the Sydney Theatre Company, she meets all her trials with a golden, regal rigor we should all be so lucky to possess as we approach (or pass) the big 4-0. What could all too easily be a standard-issue midlife crisis, if one perhaps a bit more amplified than usual, becomes a vivid and complex interpretation of the past and present at violent loggerheads. (That the rest of the play is supposed to be about this as well, but can't get its jumble of mismatched pieces to fit together coherently, is, for the moment, an incidental concern.)

The miracle Blanchett works may be found almost entirely in her ability to chart the slow, bizarre decline Anna experiences as she tries to escape her own personal history. The widow of a man referred to as "the General," Anna has invited her various family and friends to the estate to celebrate her exit from her 30s. And, for the first of the four acts, she seems to be dealing pretty well with it, submerging any external sadness in diversions such as chess, conversation, and flirting—not that there's much difference between those three activities for her. And Blanchett, all sunny demeanor and stiff shoulders, is the picture of a woman in control of her destiny even if she's helpless against the unforgiving passage of time.

In Act II, set at dinner in the elaborate folly outside the main house, the cracks begin to show and vent the frustration that's long been building underneath Anna's skin. What begins with a flippant or enraged, but in any case very funny, act of Anna symbolically freeing herself from the male power structure soon erupts into explosive behavior of a very different and much more unsettling kind. It's a lot of distance to travel in a short while, but Blanchett makes sense of all of it: She begins by wrapping Anna's suffering in a dry humor, with a collapsed slump replacing her artificially perfect posture, and then thrusting them into a person who brings terrifying urgency to her need to escape the ancient ideas and traditions she thinks have long held her back.

That Blanchett retains a flawless grace during all of this, with the lady forever visible above the monster who soon comes to dominate the proceedings, is a marvel. That she's able to continue the journey through the surprisingly more girlish and humorous aftermath of the third act and the wasteland of adult responsibility coming home to roost in the fourth, all while ensuring that her portrayal is homogeneous, borders on genius. Corralling so many disparate and distinct women into a single shell, without ever allowing any of them to lose their individuality, creates someone who's so disquietingly human that you shouldn't be surprised if you don't find yourself wishing, at every turn, Blanchett were making her less totally concrete—and thus more digestible—than she is. All things considered, that's a good problem to have.

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett, joined by
Chris Ryan, Jacqueline McKenzie, Anna Bamford,
Toby Schmitz, Marshall Napier, Eamon Farren,
Brandon McClelland, and Martin Jacobs.
Photo by Joan Marcus

It is, however, far from the only one at hand—and none of the others is as fortuitous. Perhaps the biggest of the others is that this isn't technically supposed to be Anna's play. Based on Anton Chekhov's earliest play, an untitled piece often referred to as Platonov, The Present actually belongs, at least in theory, to Upton's version of that title character. Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh) is a visitor who craves every woman with whom he comes in contact except, naturally, his own wife Sasha (Susan Prior), and who embodies the hunger against which Anna is revolting. After a certain point in Act I, the action focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on Mikhail working his way through Anna, her stepson Sergei's wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), and Maria (Anna Bamford), the girlfriend of Nikolai, a doctor who's attending the birthday party.

But without giving him a firm anchor, no amount of stage time or zest of performance (and Roxburgh, blending avuncular charm with gadabout verve, does all he can) can make Mikhail genuinely central. If this is understandable from the extra-dramatic standpoint of Upton and Blanchett being married (why not write the meatiest role for your wife?), then the resulting play cannot hinge on Mikhail's magnetism and deceit driving four women emotionally insane and their men to cuckolded distraction. We're asked to accept on faith far too much about their interactions, and about how Mikhail is able to spellbind every female around, which is tough enough. But the utter lack of context to explain it just nudges the whole flimsy enterprise into the theatrical equivalent of 52-Card Pickup.

The so-called Platonov most assuredly does not represent Chekhov at his finest. It's an epic mess, containing nearly two dozen characters, most of limited utility, and reportedly running five to six hours uncut. But even when writing it at age 20, while still developing the style for which he would later become revered, Chekhov was wedded to his era and place, and their circumstances; the atmosphere is heady with a version of the us-versus-them mentality he would bring to bear in works like The Cherry Orchard, and that explains the revolution that gripped Russia a decade after his death (in 1904). So there's no mystery why contemporary artists like David Hare and Michael Frayn have tried to tame it in their own adaptations. There is nascent worth, if not discipline, in Chekhov's ideas.

Upton, alas, all but ignores it. The Present is set in the 1990s, but evokes no period or locale. If not for the Russian names, it would be impossible to know that this wasn't the English (or, I suppose, the Australian) countryside. But Chekhov's characters and their problems are so thoroughly, uniquely Russian that to make them so awkwardly universal paradoxically makes them less real, less recognizable, and lesser people. We don't know—we can't know—who they are or why they behave as they do. The attitudes that surrounded Chekhov were so baked into his society that they became inextricable from his own writing, and resonate powerfully yet today. But though he's trimmed the running time (to three hours) and the dramatis personae (to 13), Upton has provided comparable contouring only for Anna.

For this reason, despite sharp-edged direction from John Crowley, decent design (Alice Babidge did the minimalistic set and tart costumes, Nick Schlieper the matter-of-fact lights, and Stefan Gregory the forceful music and sound), and strong acting all the way around (Toby Schmitz's bright, libidinous Nikolai is another highlight), this is a dull void of an evening that exults in everything about itself except a tangible reason for being. It occurs and then it stops, leaving you unchanged and unenlightened afterward, and not persuading you that most of those you've met have a cogent claim to existence.

Thank goodness for Blanchett, who ensures not only that Anna does, but that she argues it during her every second onstage. Her plight as rendered is mesmerizing and trenchant, a cry against outdated perceptions of who women are and what they're capable of, and that leaves you with plenty to unpack. Too bad the rest of The Present is better left wrapped.

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