Directed by high profile new British director Simon Godwin, associate director of the U.K.’s National Theatre, making his New York debut, this Cherry Orchard seems to have no interpretation or explanation for a new staging. Stephen Karam, the author of last season’s acclaimed The Humans, has written a new version which seems to be heavy on American ideas in this Russian play, while both the sets and costume designs get in the way of coherence and understanding. All in all this is a great disappointment considering the talent involved.
The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov’s last play and the only one whose tragicomic theme is easily discernable. We the audience can laugh at the foibles of the characters who make mistakes, avoid making decisions, go on dreaming, and let bad habits and addictions dominate their lives. Written at the turn of the last century it presages the revolution and wars which would sweep away a Russian civilization which was dying long before 1900 came around. The play depicts the inertia of the aristocracy while the rising bourgeoisie works furiously to take advantage of their inability to act.
Although the setting is never stated, from the family names and place names, it is set in provincial Tsarist Russia at a time of upheaval. Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya has returned to her country estate after five years in Paris as it is about to be auctioned to pay the family debts on the property. The estate is nationally famed for its cherry orchard, described as the only thing in the district worth seeing. However, neither Lyubov nor her brother Leonid Gaev make the slightest attempt to raise money to save it. Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant who has risen from the peasant class, offers to arrange a sale of some of the land for summer cottages which would save the manor house. However, as the plan would mean the destruction of the cherry orchard, the sister and brother won’t even consider it.
During this last summer, there are a series of comic love affairs being conducted in full view of the other characters. In the house are Lyubov’s 17-year-old daughter Anya who is in love with Trofimov, the former tutor of her young brother who died five years before. Trofimov, the perennial student espouses revolutionary ideas which would lead to the end of the upper classes which Anya may or may not have taken up. It is assumed by all that Varya, Lyubov’s efficient adopted daughter who manages the estate, will marry Lopakhin but he never seems to get around to proposing. However, she does not make it easy with her sarcastic, peremptory attitude.
Among the lower classes love is also in the air. Yepikhodov, the Gaev’s estate clerk nicknamed “Mr. Misfortune” for his terrible luck, has proposed to the impressionable maid Dunyasha, but she has had her head turned by the condescending Yasha, Lyubov’s servant who seems glamorous as he has just returned with her from Paris. Completing this comic menagerie are Charlotta Ivanovna, Anya’s eccentric German governess, and Simeonov-Pischik, an impoverished neighboring landowner who is always looking for a handout to pay off his debts. As the summer goes on, nothing is done to stop the eventual sale and the dissolution of the family, while they continue to live as if there were no tomorrow.
Several choices damage what ought to have been a successful revival. Karam’s new version may be lucid and accessible but he has included such terms as jackass for lout and slave for the Russian serf which make this milieu a bit too American. The interracial cast seems to have been arranged on racial grounds: the characters that have risen from the lower or serf class are played by black actors which suggests that the milieu is not Russia, but the American South. However, family names, geographic locations like Moscow and such drinks as kvass set this squarely in Tsarist Russia.
Scott Pask’s sets are so large and so bare that the characters appear to be shouting across vast space towards each other. If this is supposed to suggest alienation, it only seems distracting and unrealistic. What is needed is old-fashioned furnishings to suggest a way of life that has been going on for a long time but has grown musty with age. Unaccountably, the cherry trees are mobiles which look like they have come from a later period of time. In any case, neither they nor the set create any sense of atmosphere. The first three acts of the play are performed in Michael Krass’ period costumes while the last act is performed in contemporary garb, a trite suggestion that the events of the play could still occur today.
Most problematic is Godwin’s direction. The starry cast with seven names above the title never becomes a real family unit. Each actor is allowed to use his or her own style so that they all appear to be in separate plays. As there is little real interaction or character development, it is difficult to keep the relationships straight which may be the fault of the new version as well as the direction. The third act party scene is played as a masked ball which might have been a clever concept; however, nothing is done with the idea so that it simply becomes a costuming decision.
Film star Diane Lane returning to the New York stage for the first time since 1978 plays Lyubov as a dreamy woman who has little grip on reality. However, her romantic nature which fuels her vagueness is not pursued. Ironically, Ms. Lane made her Broadway debut in the last New York revival of The Cherry Orchard in 1977 which also included the young Meryl Streep. As her wastrel brother Gaev, the usually reliable John Glover makes him seem more superficial than necessary. Joel Grey, returning to Broadway for the first time since the Roundabout’s 2009 Anything Goes, as the old family retainer Firs speaks directly to the audience as in a vaudeville turn. Chuck Cooper who was marvelous in the mediocre Amazing Grace last season plays Simeonov-Pischik as if he were privy to some joke that we haven’t been told about.
Harold Perrineau who is actually the correct age for the merchant Lopakhin risen from the peasant class unfortunately looks too young to be this mature and ruthless businessman. Both Tavi Gevinson and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Lyubov’s daughters are rather whiney without getting laughs for their troubles. Tina Benko as the sinister governess Charlotta and Susannah Flood as the suggestible maid Dunyasha create comic characters but verge on farce. Kyle Beltran as the college student Trofimov spouts revolutionary ideals and may be the author’s spokesman for needed change but his ranting is very off-putting and he comes off as extremely unsympathetic and pompous. On the other hand, Maurice Jones’ supercilious servant Yasha has just the right amount of disdain for his betters.
A new and trenchant Cherry Orchard is certainly a timely idea. Unfortunately, Simon Godwin’s production for the Roundabout Theater Company in the new version by Stephen Karam leaves the actors adrift in an unfocused production. The starry cast made up of three Tony Award and Drama Desk Award winners, as well as Oscar, Emmy, Drama League and Golden Globe winners and nominees has not come together as a coherent whole.
The Cherry Orchard (through December 4, 2016)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission