When Diane Lane, returning to Broadway after nearly four decades, enters on stage in the Roundabout’s ambitiously reinterpreted production of The Cherry Orchard, her Lubyov seems an impossibly glamorous lady returning after five years abroad to her cherished estate. But Lubyov’s life, we soon learn, is actually a mess, her past tragic, her future doomed.
Having left Russia after her young son drowned, Madame Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya in self-imposed exile in Paris took up with a cruel lover, and recently attempted suicide. Her family, hearing the news, has brought her back home — to an estate so debt-ridden it will soon be sold at auction. A family friend offers a solution to save the estate – replace the cherry orchard with summer cottages, assuring enough income to cover the debts and have a healthy income besides.
Lyubov won’t hear of it. “Chop it down? My dear, forgive me, but you don’t seem to understand a thing. In this part of the country, if there’s anything of interest, or even noteworthy, it’s our cherry orchard.”
Anton Chekhov’s compatriots were going through an anxious period of transition when in 1904 he wrote his final play, about the change in the established order in society – the death of the aristocracy, the birth of the middle class – as embodied by the loss and uncertainty in one woman’s circle of family, friends, neighbors and servants. Surely recognizing some parallels with America’s current tensions, the Roundabout commissioned Stephen Karam, the author of the Tony-winning hit The Humans, to write a new adaptation, and hired Simon Godwin, the associate director of the UK’s National Theatre, to make his Broadway directorial debut.
Karam and Godwin strive to keep “Chekhov’s world intact” (as a program note puts it) but have it “refracted through the sensibilities of 21st century America.”
Karam has explained that he wanted his adaptation “to land the play in modern American ears the way it landed in Russian ears in 1904.” Hence, he has the tutor Trofimov say of Lyubov “She’s so uptight.” He also has a passer-by to whom Lyubov gives money recite the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. (“Give me your tired, your poor…”)
This effort to straddle two eras is evident in set designer Scott Pask’s spare abstract depiction of Lyubov’s estate, with a platform that resembles the stump of a cherry tree, and the cherry trees themselves rendered as a series of Alexander Calder’s hanging mobiles painted white. (Perhaps there is a metaphor here, for the precarious balance of society.) A trio of musicians, brought onstage, play Nico Muhly’s original compositions for violin, clarinet and percussion, which suggest a pleasing mix of classical music with contemporary accents.
Michael Krass’s costumes seem to be telling their own story, with Lyubov and her brother Leonid (John Glover) dressed like 19th century Russian aristocrats while their former serfs dress increasingly as the play progresses in 21s century business attire – except in the third act, when they are all dressed in fanciful costumes for a masked ball. That party scene, but threaded throughout the play, is full of goosed up comedic touches, such as pratfalls and magic tricks (none of which elicited anything but silence from the audience.)
The most adventurous directorial move is the hiring of black actors to play the serfs and ex-serfs, and the substitution of the word “slave” for what most versions translate as “serf.”
I struggled to make sense of the creative team’s overlaying of America’s central story of race onto the very Russian class conflict at the heart of Chekhov’s play. If the analogy ultimately didn’t quite work for me, I appreciated the way it forced me to consider the differences in the two histories.
The color-conscious casting also allows for the Broadway debut of the riveting screen actor Harold Perrineau as Lopakhin, the son and grandson of “slaves” who has become rich. He is the family friend who suggests chopping down the cherry orchard.
Perrineau is part of a talented cast that includes some first-rate New York stage performers: Joel Grey as the family’s aged butler Firs and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Lyubov’s adopted daughter Varya are particular stand-outs.
There is no ignoring the harshly critical reception that this Cherry Orchard has received. It’s true that the directorial choices don’t quite mesh together, but this would surely have inspired less vitriol if the play were not so familiar. The Cherry Orchard is one of the most frequently revived plays on Broadway. Indeed, Diane Lane made her Broadway debut at age 12 in the 1977 production of The Cherry Orchard, in a cast that included Irene Worth as Lubyov and Meryl Streep as the chambermaid Dunyasha. A Russian production (with English surtitles) was mounted at BAM just this year. There are just too many fine, nuanced productions in memory for theatergoers to feel the need for an updated version, or to tolerate one that, to put it charitably, could use more time to find the proper balance.
The Cherry Orchard is on stage at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater (227 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036, west of Seventh Avenue) through November 27, 2015.
Tickets and details.
The Cherry Orchard, “a new version” written by Stephen Karam, adapting Anton Chekhov. Directed by Simon Godwin, sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Michael Krass, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Christopher Cronin, movement by Jonathan Goddard, original music by Nico Muhly, music coordinator John Miller, magic consultant Paul Kieve, vocal coach Kate Wilson, fight director Thomas Schall. Featuring Diane Lane as Ranevskaya, Joel Grey as Firs, Chuck Cooper as Pischik, Tavi Gevinson as Anya, John Glover as Gaev, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Varya, Harold Perrineau as Lopakhin, Kyle Beltran as Trofimov, Tina Benko as Charlotta, Susannah Flood as Dunyasha, Maurice Jones as Yasha, Quinn Mattfeld as Yepikhodov, Peter Bradbury as Passer-by, Philip Kerr as Station Master, Lise Bruneau, Jacqueline Jarrold, Ian Lassiter, Carl Hendrick Louis. Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.