There was every reason to be excited about Stephen Karam tackling one of Anton Chekhov’s late masterworks. In his 2016 Tony-winning play The Humans, Karam balances humor and melancholy with exquisite naturalism. The subtly shaped text is light on narrative but alive with a compassionate sense of very real people from a specific social class, seeking familial comfort amid encroaching anxiety, loss and disappointment. What could be more Chekhovian? That makes the thudding failure of Karam’s new version of The Cherry Orchard all the more deflating.
The bulk of the blame should be apportioned to Simon Godwin’s production, which is clumsily directed and unattractively designed. Its cast of accomplished actors scurries on and off the stage in a continuous blur of dramatic inertia and purposelessness, with very little sense of who they are and even less cohesion. What’s missing, primarily, is the fundamental element of pathos. When Chekhov cast his gaze over turn of the 20th century Russia and its chilly winds of socio-economic change, he spread his sympathies with admirable even-handedness between the doomed aristocracy, clinging with stubborn blindness to its obsolete status, and the former servant class, grappling with its newfound prospects for wealth and elevation.
That dichotomy is largely limited here to the production’s two most satisfying performances, both in secondary roles. Joel Grey marries farce with sorrow as the faithful elderly manservant Firs, who yearns for the old order in which masters were masters and servants were servants, his refusal to change leaving him ultimately forgotten. And Celia Keenan-Bolger captures the frustrated helplessness of Varya, the landowner’s adopted daughter, now serving as housekeeper on the debt-ridden estate. Her pleas for financial responsibility are as poignant in their futility as her hopes of a marriage proposal from the upwardly mobile Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau), whose father was a serf on the estate.
It’s unclear whether the casting of African-American actors like Perrineau, Maurice Jones as the opportunistic manservant Yasha and Kyle Beltran as reformist student Trofimov is intended to draw parallels between serfdom in 19th century Russia and slavery in the American South. But when Trofimov lectures his beloved Anya (Tavi Gevinson, guilelessly earnest) about how her ancestors owned the people who built and worked on the cherry orchard, and how owning “living souls” changes who you are, it’s inevitable that his words collide with the legacy of American slavery. The two realities, however, are culturally distant. Forcing our 21st century sensibilities and social awareness onto Chekhov’s characters becomes an awkward intrusion, as does having a character randomly quote Emma Lazarus.
Perrineau is a fine actor, and it’s good to see him back on a Broadway stage after a long absence. But perhaps because of the allusions to American slavery — deliberate or not — the conflicts so inherent to Lopakhin here just rob him of dignity. Chekhov wrote about the rising new middle class with a lingering affection for the elegant society of their former masters. Lopakhin in particular is as eager to receive the approval of the glamorous landowner Ranevskaya (Diane Lane) as he is to expand his business empire. Her sweetness to him as a child, after his drunken father had bloodied his nose, still softens his view of her, making him willing to overlook her phoniness and condescension. The certainty that Ranevskaya and her family will never view him as an equal adds a veil of sadness over his fruitless efforts to get them on board with his plan to save the failing estate.
Or at least, it should. The last major New York production of this play in 2009 (adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Sam Mendes) was uneven but often affecting — nowhere more so than in the complex gravitas that Simon Russell Beale brought to the role of Lopakhin, his feelings a tug of war between tenderness and resentment. That kind of nuance is missing in the far broader characterizations here. Karam lays out the plot fundaments clearly enough, but the characters lack the shading to locate the play’s emotional richness.
Lane has a history with The Cherry Orchard, having appeared at age 12 in the ensemble of a stylized 1977 Broadway staging that starred Irene Worth and Raul Julia, also featuring Meryl Streep on the cusp of her movie breakthrough. Lane starts out in command, returning from Paris and sweeping into her beloved old nursery on a cloud of dewy nostalgia. It’s instantly apparent why this beautiful, gregarious woman is a magnet to people across the class spectrum. But later, as Ranevskaya is faced with the very real possibility of losing the estate, Lane becomes hammy and emphatic, undercutting the depth and sincerity of her connection to the place.
As her brother Gaev, a verbose orator in love with the sound of his own voice, John Glover brings his usual authority, and there are touching moments toward the end in which the adult siblings appear to acknowledge their impotence to one another with a glance or gesture. But there’s no compelling reason to feel for these characters; their helplessness in the face of change mostly just seems obtuse.
Karam’s rewrite blows the dust off the language, but along with it, the poetry, and Godwin’s direction too often blurs the distinctions among the characters. Tina Benko cuts a flamboyant figure as Charlotta, the governess with a knack for magic tricks, but she’s a jester in a joyless court, with a touch of Marlene Dietrich-style drag-queeniness that veers into camp. Chuck Cooper, an actor generally incapable of giving an uninteresting performance, is misused as narcoleptic neighboring landowner Simeonov-Pischik, a fawning leech who constantly has his hand out for a loan. Susannah Flood has some nice moments as melodramatic maid Dunyasha, though she seems a different person every time she’s onstage. And Beltran, who has been deeply moving in off-Broadway productions like The Flick and Fortress of Solitude, is miscast, turning Trofimov into a preachy bore.
Despite bonds that go back decades, these people often seem barely acquainted, wandering about the stage like strangers who just happen to have turned up in the same space. And as the aristocrats continue to prattle on in semi-obliviousness while their world crumbles, we feel as little empathy for them as we feel for the nouveau riche Lopakhin, who celebrates his newly acquired rank with a dance that’s one of the production’s more bizarre head-scratchers.
Designer Scott Pask goes for heavy austerity, staging the action on a massive sawn-off tree trunk but otherwise confining representation of the oft-mentioned orchard to the unseen space beyond a large opaque window. He also uses a frequent motif of Calder-esque mobiles, the symbolism of which is mystifying. Like the dialogue, Michael Krass‘ costumes span the century, which might have heightened the contemporary resonance had that aspect been more soundly realized in the text. Only Donald Holder’s muted lighting strikes a tone that consistently makes sense, bringing surges of warmth, expressive feeling and straining vitality. Those qualities are called for in the drama but seldom summoned in this dull, misconceived production.
In addition to The Humans, Karam’s gifts have been apparent on terrific earlier plays like Speech & Debate and Sons of the Prophet. Here’s hoping his handle on Chekhov is more confident on his screen adaptation of The Seagull, currently in postproduction with a starry cast that includes Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss and Brian Dennehy.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York
Cast: Diane Lane, Chuck Cooper, Tavi Gevinson, John Glover, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Harold Perrineau, Joel Grey, Kyle Beltran, Tina Benko, Susannah Flood, Maurice Jones, Quinn Mattfeld, Peter Bradbury, Philip Kerr, Lise Bruneau, Jacqueline Jarrold, Ian Lassiter, Carl Hendrick Louis
Director: Simon Godwin
Playwright: Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Stephen Karam
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Christopher Cronin
Music: Nico Muhly
Movement: Jonathan Goddard
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company