About halfway through The Present, an adaptation of Chekhov’s first play, Cate Blanchett, as a Russian general’s widow celebrating her 40th birthday, shoots off a shotgun, dances atop a table, and pours vodka on her head. It is an attention-grabbing moment in Blanchett’s Broadway debut performance – and one of the show’s few unmitigated pleasures.
The Present tracks 13 disparate but interrelated characters brought together for the birthday party of Anna Petrovna, the character that Blanchett portrays. It’s a reunion for some, and, for most, not a happy one. Their relationships are complex, their interactions full of friction. “Here we are. Just like old times, fighting over things we can’t change and probably wouldn’t even if we could,” Anna observes at one point.
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The central relationship is between Anna and Mikhail Petronov, portrayed by Richard Roxburgh. But Petronov is also juggling the love of three other equally infatuated women, including his own wife and the wife of one of his two best friends, as well the girlfriend of the other. For all that, Petronov is morose and disappointed in life, having hoped to become a famous writer, instead winding up a schoolteacher. That he betrays all his friends and lovers, and ultimately pays the price for it, plays out in an awkward mix of comedy and tragedy.
The play opens in what is supposed to be the back porch of Anna’s country mansion, but Alice Babbige’s set is so dreary — as gray and symmetrical as a locker room — it is almost as if director John Crowley is telling us (at least subliminally) to forget the set and focus on the acting, it will provide all the color you need. Yet, it is difficult to be in thrall of the 13 actors, all of whom are making their Broadway debuts. The reason for this is not because they are all Australians pretending to be Russian; it’s a great mercy to the audience that nobody attempts a Russian accent. Nor would it be fair to call the acting uneven. Rather, it’s that the characters are of unequal weight and interest, yet we are forced to sort them all out, which takes at least the first half of the play. Thematically, the large cast makes sense; they are employed in part to reveal the tension among three generations– the friends and colleagues of the dead general; the middle-aged friends of Anna (who married the general as a teenager) and the generation of new adults. But having to be attentive to the rants and idle chatter of so many characters presents a challenge to all but the most committed theatergoers.
Some will find Chekhov’s first play of intrinsic value and interest. It was probably written when he was 18, and neither published nor produced for half a century, which was some 20 years after his death. Given this history, however, it seems reasonable to conclude that Chekhov did not want it published or produced. If it touches on some of the same themes and dramatic devices as his later plays, such as The Cherry Orchard, it inarguably suffers from the comparison.
It is also worth pointing out that what’s on stage at the Ethel Barrymore is not literally Chekhov’s play. It’s an adaptation that takes many liberties.
Adapter Andrew Upton, Blanchett’s husband and the former co-artistic director with her of the Sydney Theater Company, where The Present was first produced in 2015, has transposed the play to the 1990s, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. All the nods to the Glasnost era feel superficial – the 90’s suits; the boombox that Anna and some of the others dance briefly to at one point; the word “glastnost” that one character utters. There is little about the way the characters act and react that seem to spring from that very specific moment in Russian history.
Upton also shifts the focus to Anna. Although Chekhov himself did not give his first play a title (it is sometimes still referred to as “the play without a title”), it is most commonly entitled Platonov, after the character Mikhail Platonov, and previous productions and adaptations have focused on that character. (This includes English playwright Michael Frayn’s 1984 adaptation of the play, given the title Wild Honey, which ran briefly on Broadway 30 years ago starring Ian McKellen as Platonov.)
There are some advantages to the shift, allowing Blanchett to let loose, both physically and verbally. “There are two types of men,” Anna tells another female character, Maria (who is dating Nicholai but lusted after by Mikhail.) “The unsatisfactory lover; who makes an okay husband. And the unsatisfactory husband; who makes an okay lover. It strikes me that Nikolai might be that rarest of beasts in that he is unsatisfactory in both departments.”
When it comes to The Present, there might be two types of theatergoers. There are those who are fans of the two-time Oscar winner who will find her performance entertaining enough to obliterate any other concerns, or who have the patience and curiosity to appreciate the production’s complex texture and thought-provoking themes of loss, regret, paralysis, desire, loneliness, fear of change — who will feel good for having experienced Quality Theater. And then there are the rest of us, who wish it were shorter.
The Present by Andrew Upton . Adapted from a play by Anton Chekhov . Directed by John Crowley . Featuring Cate Blanchett (Anna), Richard Roxburgh (Mikhail), Anna Bamford (Maria), Andrew Buchanan (Osip), David Downer (Yegor), Eamon Farren (Kirrill), Martin Jacobs (Alexei), Brandon McClelland (Dimitri), Jacqueline McKenzie (Sophia), Marshall Napier (Ivan), Susan Prior (Sasha), Chris Ryan (Sergei) and Toby Schmitz (Nikolai). Set and costume design: Alice Babidge . Lighting design: Nick Schlieper. Sound Designer and Composer: Stefan Gregory. Produced by The Sydney Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.
The Sydney Theatre Company production of The Present is onstage at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC in a limited engagement through March 19, 2017.
Details and Tickets or call 212 223-6200.