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Theatre in Review: The Present (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Brandon McClelland, Richard Roxburgh, David Downer, Cate Blanchett. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The Present begins with Cate Blanchett pointing a gun in the general direction of the audience; in a way, she is really taking aim at received ideas regarding the works of Anton Chekhov. The Present is a deluxe evening of emotional (and sometimes physical) mayhem, taken from the early, unfinished Chekhov play best known as Platonov, although officially it is nameless. Freely adapted by Andrew Upton, it details a country house weekend where lifelong friendships are destroyed, marriages are shattered, and adulteries are committed with such alacrity that you'll need a scorecard to keep track of the players. And as for that gun -- well, you know what Chekhov says about them, and The Present dutifully obeys Chekhov's law.

This is the third version of Platonov that I've seen and they barely resemble each other; in each case, the adaptor has seemingly used the original text as a jumping-off point for a semi-original work. (It is hundreds of pages in length and, if staged, would run about five hours.) Michael Frayn's Wild Honey, seen briefly on Broadway the mid-'80s starring Ian McKellen, was a sex farce, albeit one with a tragic ending. (Frayn's text contains one of my favorite lines, Platonov's assertion that "The only stories that end happily are those that don't have me in them.") David Hare's Platonov, seen in 2001 at London's Almeida Theatre, was closer to straight-up Chekhov, if rather more rambling and unfocused than his best plays. It received a mixed press originally, but earned much acclaim this year in a revision at the National Theatre as part of a trilogy titled Young Chekhov, which included Hare's adaptations of Ivanov and The Cherry Orchard.

Upton's idea -- an inspired one, to my mind -- is to reset the action in post-Glasnost Russia, when, following the collapse of the Soviet system, a Wild West version of capitalism took hold. This is not Chekhov's Russia of feckless landowners, heartsick spinsters, and ancient babushkas sighing on the summer lawn; The Present unfolds in a society ruled by oligarchs, financial advisers, and sinister security agents. As one character ironically notes, "Love might try and tear us apart, but money will keep us together." As it happens, not even that will do the job.

Blanchett is Anna, the widow of an elderly general, who gathers family and friends for a weekend in the country to celebrate her 40th birthday. What should be an occasion for affection and fond remembrance descends into chaos, fueled by lust, regret, and an endless supply of vodka. Anna, whose savings are running out, keeps two of her late husband's old friends, Alexei and Yegor, on a string, planning to marry one or the other and use her new spouse's governmental influence to reactivate the mines on the estate. One major roadblock to this plan is the presence of Platonov, who dreamed of being a great writer but ended up a provincial schoolteacher with a dull, if adoring, wife and infant son. Corroded by boredom, filled with self-loathing, Platonov is the play's agent of destabilization, tending to his psychological wounds with gallons of booze and the attentions of any available female.

As it happens, the guest list for the weekend includes Sergei, Anna's stepson, and his new wife, Sophia, who, many years before, had a fling with Platonov -- and who wouldn't mind picking up where they left off. Also in attendance are Nikolai, Sergei, and Platonov's great friend, and his lover, Maria, who arouses Platonov's erotic interest. You'd think Platonov would have his hands full, but Anna, despite her marriage intrigue, wants Platonov for herself; he returns her feelings but fears that the needy, neurotic Anna -- a collection of high-tension wires in human form -- will devour him. Other than that, everything's just fine.

Upton's text is thoroughly Chekhovian in the way that heartbreak and farce occupy the same stage; the elegant turns of phrase are his own. Anna, analyzing the doltish Nikolai, comments, "I wonder if your shallowness is a deliberate mask to conceal deep pain, until you get the philosophy on; then I realize it is a permanent condition for you -- being inconsequential." Yegor, taking aim at Platonov, says, "He is the hero of his own television show. Unfortunately, no one is watching it." Taking on the subject of romantic love, Platonov says, "And then you get married and it's all downhill from there. But that's okay, because the wife's job is to rebuild the husband. And the husband's job is to rebuild the wife. Marriage -- after 'I fell in love' -- is one long renovation."

John Crowley's direction has a laser-like accuracy for line readings and the bits of business that lay bare each character's agenda, frustrations, and fears, and he is aided by a cast from Sydney Theatre Company who play together superbly; this is currently the most stunning ensemble on a New York stage. The distinguished Australian actor Richard Roxburgh is largely unknown here, but not for long; as Platonov, he is a whirlwind, stirring up disaster wherever he goes. "This place smells of people!" he announces with a serrated edge in his voice, and you instantly know trouble is in store. Fending off the ultra-determined Sophia, a doctor who wants to drag him back to Africa and a life of good works, he wearily notes, "I haven't moved from this spot for twenty years. Twenty years I have been stuck here. They garden around me." Taking measure of the thuggish Osip, an ex-KGB agent now working in "security," he says, using each word like a dagger, "This is the coming man. This is the world we are all going to inherit. A world of security and loose ends to deal with. A world of skill bases, loyalty, and a kind of...integrity...all things considered. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink." For all his barbed remarks, Platonov is his own worst enemy; the sight of Roxburgh seated on an otherwise bare stage, surrounded by fog, his demeanor clouded by two or three bottles too many and staring off into some incomprehensibly dark middle distance, is an indelible portrait of middle-aged despair.

Roxburgh also plays brilliantly with Blanchett, as Platonov struggles with Anna's advances, seeming to give in, yet only to rebel once more. Anna is a tricky character, seemingly mordant and sensible on the surface but fearsomely desperate underneath and, in her own way, as fond of trouble as Platonov. Whether dandling Sergei, her stepson (who is virtually the same age), on her knee, quietly blowing a raspberry at Nikolai during a game of chess, or leaping to seize a pistol from a hysterical guest, she is a most formidable hostess. Indeed, surveying her so-called loved ones, she points a pistol at her head in mock frustration. Inside her, the fault lines are forming. Describing marital love in a voice filled with rancor and tinged with hysteria, she says, "Everything looks great in the catalogue. Everything looks fabulous and wonderful until you get it home and take it out of the package. And the fingerprints, and the scratches, and the chips, and the dents, and the slow betrayal of time." Her Anna also has a touch of Hedda Gabler, forever advising others to take action, and then getting a vicarious charge from the wreckage that follows. Bored to death during luncheon, she fires a rifle, initiates a mad dance sequence, and makes an announcement that has everyone screaming in terror. Blanchett is one of the most fearless actresses around and once again she (successfully) takes risks that many others would never dare to try.

Everyone in the cast delivers, however, aided by Crowley's skill at orchestrating overlapping dialogue and staging a luncheon party that has apparently died of boredom, with Platonov drunkenly raving about some film about lost youth while Anna sits at the table's opposite end, her face buried in her palm, her left leg trembling in repressed fury, and everyone else in various states of stupefaction. There are several standouts: Anna Bamford makes a great deal of the smallish role of Maria, a self-described "serious person" who is blissfully unaware that she speaks almost entirely in clich├ęs. David Downer's Yegor is content to sit on the sidelines, amiably divorced from the action, until he coolly informs Anna that if a marriage bargain is to be struck, it will be strictly on his terms. Similarly, Brandon McClelland, as Dimitri, Yegor's son, steps out of the crowd to inform Platonov, in a voice dripping with quiet contempt, "The world cannot afford people like you," and the room is suddenly filled with tension. Jacqueline McKenzie is a frighteningly determined Sophia. Chris Ryan's Sergei is pathos personified, chasing after Sophia long past the point of any hope.

Alice Babidge's set design, working in a white-and-gray palette, delivers various locations in Anna's country house, including the patio, the interior of a folly where luncheon is held, and a sitting room. The fourth location, an exterior on the estate, is defined almost entirely by Nick Schlieper's eerie nighttime wash and plenty of fog; Schlieper's lighting also provides a fine daylight wash and a dark, rain-sodden afternoon look. Babidge's costumes subtly reveal much about each character, especially in the inappropriate and unflattering party dress worn by Platonov's wife, Sasha. Stefan Gregory's sound design combines his own melancholy underscoring with ambient effects, including barking dogs and birdsong, and such punk classics as "London Calling."

"Birthdays are always lively," says Yegor. "Balancing the past and the present is tricky at the best of times. But that's Russia these days, isn't it?" The Present manages its own balancing act, revealing its source material to be a seedbed for the great Chekhov works to follow, while maintaining its own highly contemporary view of its spiritually displaced Russian gentry. And Blanchett, Roxburgh, and company bring it to hair-raising life. -- David Barbour

(9 January 2017)

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