by Michael Bracken
It’s a risky business to rework a classic. Change too much, and you lose its greatness. Change too little, and why bother. But if you’re skilled and lucky enough to find the right balance, as Stephen Karam has been with Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, you just might hit pay dirt.
Karam’s “new version” of Chekhov’s last play, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, keeps Chekhov’s story line intact. It also embraces the existential ennui that hovers above just about all of Chekhov’s plays. But at the same time, its mood is just a little lighter. Its dialogue seems fresh and its pace is quickened.
Right from the start you know this is not your parents’ Cherry Orchard. It’s not so much the trio of off-stage musicians as the contemporary costuming of the actors that gives it away. (Kudos to Michael Krass for his witty array of colorful turn of the twenty-first century clothes.) The colorblind casting is another clue that we are not in Russia in 1904, when and where the play was first produced.
But we are. The early 1900’s were a time of social upheaval in Russia. The serfs had been set free some time ago. The middle class was ascendant and the aristocracy becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Cherry Orchard’s landscape is steeped in this zeitgeist, as is its central figure, Lyubov (Diane Lane), even if she refuses to see it.
Just arrived back from Paris, the beautiful middle-aged owner of the land on which the cherry orchard sits is oblivious to any shifts in society. Her focus is more immediate: she needs money. Her estate, including its beautiful cherry orchard, is about to be auctioned off.
Enter Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau), a pragmatist devoid of sentiment, who has embraced the new order and profited by it. He implores Lyubov to cut down the cherry orchard and subdivide it into small plots, where people from the city can have summer homes. She thinks he’s crazy, as does her brother, Gaev (John Glover). To them the idea of cutting down the cherry trees is unthinkable, a sacrilege. Unable to accept that the world they knew is crumbling, they do nothing but wait as the auction approaches.
Director Simon Godwin infuses the production with energy in the form of movement. Chekhov’s characters are usually somewhat languorous, sitting or standing and talking. Here the action just about never stops. People run and jump and eat and fall and dance. Confetti is shot from a canon. The musicians join the party on stage. Party guests play musical chairs. Yet for all their running around, they’re still halting, doubting, wishing for something better but frozen by confusion and fear of the unknown.
Diane Lane is a fabulous Lyubov. Graceful and gracious, impetuous and spoiled, she sees no farther than what’s right in front of her. She’s just a girl who can’t say no, with regard to pleas for money and otherwise. No wonder she’s broke.
Chekhov labeled The Cherry Orchard a comedy despite its somber aspect. This production is the first I’ve seen where the label made sense. While it’s hardly a barrel of laughs, stock comedic characters seem to have a higher profile. They include Gaev, who never stops talking, Yepikhodov (Quinn Mattfeld), always bumping into things, Pischik (Chuck Cooper), who’s always asking for money, Charlotta (Tina Benko), a magician with a wry sense of humor, and Firs (the indomitable Joel Grey), an aged servant with dogged determination.
The Cherry Orchard is very much of its time but continues to speak to us today. That’s why it’s a classic. Director Simon Godwin has provided a dynamic, user-friendly production with Karam’s pitch-perfect script and excellent work from a gifted cast and a top-notch design team, including Scott Pask for scenic design and Donald Holder for lighting.
The Cherry Orchard. Through December 4 at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus