The soulful, rueful, and romantic Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is one of those evergreen, canonic dramatists who, like Ibsen, O’Neill, and Shakespeare, will never go out of fashion. No matter what continent or hemisphere you’re in, somewhere there’s guaranteed to be a stage where The Seagull or Uncle Vanya or Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard is being performed. Rarely, though, do you get a chance to see his forgotten first play, Platonov. There are a couple of reasons for that: The first and most obvious is that, as written, the four-act drama is five hours long – an endurance test for even the heartiest and most devoted Chekhovian. Second, and more mysteriously, it’s just one of those plays that tends to get overlooked. It’s a second-tier work that seems to shrink when put under the same spotlight as Chekhov’s first-tier ones. It’s his Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 — impressive, but no one walks around humming it.
Andrew Upton, the former artistic director of the always-innovative Sydney Theatre Company, is out to change that. His new adaptation of Platonov, which he has rechristened The Present and sheared down to a more user-friendly three hours, is now playing on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre through March 19. That might sound like a pretty splashy venue for an obscure work, but it makes sense when you look at the names on the marquee: Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett and Tony-nominated director John Crowley (2005’s The Pillowman, as well as 2015 film Brooklyn).
Blanchett and her fellow Aussie costar, Richard Roxburgh, aren’t strangers to Chekhov. They played opposite one another in the Sydney Theatre Company’s rapturously reviewed Uncle Vanya, which was part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival. And from The Present’s opening moments, it’s obvious that they have an undeniable understanding of the play, not to mention a combustible chemistry together on stage. But sparks alone aren’t enough to make the unfocused and overly busy play soar. There are too many characters coming and going — too many moving parts — and it never quite finds the right balance between melodrama and farce. It’s the definition of an ambitious mixed bag.
The Present has been updated from a pre-revolutionary Russia to the chaotic post-perestroika era – a change of setting that would seem embarrassingly rich with opportunities for social satire and political commentary, but it’s never exploited enough. Instead, Upton (who’s married to Blanchett) and Crowley strain to make the play’s late 20th-century makeover contemporary and knowing and cool (acts open and close with rollicking songs by The Clash), but it feels more like punk poseur window-dressing trying to spruce up a soft-rock B-side.
The Present opens at a country lake house where a dozen or so old friends are gathering to celebrate the 40th birthday of Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) — a wealthy and bored widow who was once married to a former Soviet bigwig known as “The General.” Among the guests are Anna’s naïve stepson Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his new wife, the do-gooding Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), and his two best friends from childhood — the immature, wisecracking doctor Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) and the self-loathing womanizer Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh). There’s also Mikhail’s easy-target wife, Sasha (Susan Prior), as well as Nikolai’s self-serious girlfriend, Maria (Anna Bamford)… and an antique pistol.
That last one will come as no surprise to Chekhov fans. The playwright was famous for saying that if a loaded rifle is hanging on the wall in the first act it must go off in the second or third. So even if you aren’t familiar with all of the mad, plate-spinning mechanics of The Present, you’ll be on guard. Chekhov, of course, doesn’t let you down. Yet the three hours between the gun’s introduction (it’s a birthday gift to Anna) and its ultimate discharge (100-year-old spoiler alert!) are maddeningly uneven. Alcohol is consumed, old romances are rekindled, the past is exhumed, the compromises of adulthood are dissected, and jokes with the bittersweet sting of truth are told — all in the overlapping, bouncy native twang of the company’s cast members. There are 13 of them in all. But the two you won’t take your eyes off are Roxburgh (whose Mikhail, like a spoiled child, has a knack for destroying friendships in pursuit of his own vodka-fueled libido) and Blanchett (her Anna turns world-weary regret and seductive manipulation into a dark art).
Still, with that pistol sitting idle stage right, there’s a third star of the show. And it’s only a matter of time before the party ends with a bang — I just wish it was more worth the wait. As hard as it tries, The Present never really makes the case for why Chekhov’s forgotten play should be remembered alongside his more famous ones.