Monday, October 17, 2016

The Cherry Orchard at the Roundabout: The Upside and the Downside

Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane and John Glover in the Roundabout Theater's The Cherry Orchard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Diane Lane gives a warm and luminous performance as Ranevskaya in the newly opened Roundabout Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard. Though she’s done relatively little theatrical work, Lane has the aura of a great stage personality, the kind playwrights built vehicles around in the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. As Ranevskaya, who, with her brother Gaev (John Glover), embodies the last vestiges of the bankrupt Russian aristocracy, incapable of saving themselves, she gets at both the high-comic and the tragic undercurrents of Chekhov’s masterly final play – and at its magic, too. It’s the most radical of his pieces, giving rise to sudden shifts of mood and tone as well as revealing the contradictions that make his characters both intricate, impressionistic reflections of real human experience and unsolvable mysteries. Ranevskaya is frivolous and generous, foolish and worldly-wise, life-embracing and haunted – and Lane suggests all of these aspects.

Her scenes with Glover are extraordinary. He brings an exuberant eccentricity to the part of the eternally babbling Gaev, whose childlike nature is charming and infuriating in equal parts. Costumed by Michael Krass in elegant velvet dressing gowns and full-length jackets, with a walrus mustache that seems to be ink-drawn on the air, Glover uses his height for a whimsical caricatural effect; he’s like a storybook scarecrow come to life as a noble – or perhaps a character in one of Tchaikovsky’s fairy-tale ballets. Firs (an extremely touching Joel Grey), the antique servant who follows Gaev around as if he were still a little boy, scolding him for staying up too late or walking out of the house without a coat, seems to be his essential appendage; you can’t imagine how he can walk about the world without someone to take care of him. So, at the end of the play, when the brother and sister lose their estate and move on to new lives, and Firs, dying, is accidentally abandoned in the locked house, you feel it’s the inevitable end for the master as well as the servant. (I’ve never seen any actor perform this final scene as delicately or movingly as Grey – and I’ve never been made as acutely aware of the link between it and some of the finest moments in Beckett’s plays.)

Ranevskaya’s opposite number is Lopakhin, the son of a serf who grew up on the estate and has grown into a the richest man in the province – wealthy enough to buy the cherry orchard, the jewel of the Ranevskys’ property, when their failure to keep up the mortgage results in its being put up at auction. Harold Perrineau plays this character as charismatic but with a nervous restlessness, his acquisitiveness – which is tied to his need to own everything that he and his family were deprived of in earlier days – complicated by his lifelong adoration of Ranevskaya (who was kind to him when he was a child, subject to beatings by his mercurial, drunken father). Like her and her brother, Lopakhin is both comic – a survivor who takes giant steps in this new world – and tragic – unable to settle down or find happiness, a puzzle even to himself. Perrineau does a splendid job with the pivotal third-act scene where Lopakhin, a little sozzled, comes home from the auction in the middle of a party the Ranevskys have thrown, improvidently and rather desperately, and announces that he’s bought the cherry orchard. The scene is a bear even for actors with a lot more stage experience than Perrineau. But when he bursts into a celebratory dance in front of the party guests and then meets Ranevskaya’s tears and her fists, pummeling uselessly at his chest and arms, by demanding to know why she didn’t listen to him when he proposed a financial solution for her and Gaev’s dilemma, he captures the essential tension in the character between pride and revenge on the one hand, compassion and sorrow on the other. (It’s worth noting that casting an African American in the role of an arriviste from a family of serfs underscores the text in a powerful way.)

John Glover, Joel Grey, Diane Lane and Chuck Cooper in The Cherry Orchard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Given the quality of these four performances, I should be able to report that the Roundabout Cherry Orchard is a triumph, but I’m afraid that, aside from them and most of Maurice Jones’ portrayal of the suave, womanizing, social-climbing servant Yasha, I didn’t really like anything about it. (Jones’ performance falls apart in the third act, when Chekhov hints at Yasha’s demons, but he’s good up to then.) I didn’t care for Stephen Karam’s slangy new adaptation, which hews to the exasperating current rage for introducing anachronisms into landmark modernist plays. But my objections were mostly with Simon Godwin’s direction – surprisingly, since I’m a big fan of his work with England’s National Theatre (Strange Interlude, Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem). Godwin takes a broad comic brush to the text that often renders it silly and tiresome, and the visual ideas, writ large, are truly dopey. Scott Pask’s first-act set is an almost bare stage with a model of the estate downstage right and a few sticks of furniture that are too small to hold the actors’ bodies comfortably. I get it: they’ve outgrown the past, so has Russia, and what’s left of it is spare and inadequate. It seems to me, though, that good direction balances a concept against the actual consequences of putting it on stage, especially in so literal-minded a manner. And here are the consequences: there’s so little on stage to engage the nostalgia of the homecoming characters, Ranevskaya and her daughter Anya (a miserably miscast Tavi Gevanson) as well as the ones who have never left home, like Gaev and Firs and Anya’s adopted sister Varya (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who keeps the house, that when Ranevskaya and Gaev in particular wax poetic about the setting of their childhood happiness they sound delusional, and everyone who tries to squeeze into those chairs looks stupid. I doubt that was what Godwin was going for, or that he wanted Chuck Cooper (totally at sea as the Ranevskys’ neighbor and fellow aristocrat SImeonov-Pischik) to look like a fool when he falls asleep on his feet in the middle of a sentence and drops to the ground. The ball in act three is now a costume party where all the characters, including the ensemble, look like superannuated Halloween trick-or-treaters. Again I get it: the extravagant event is a folly, peopled by tacky locals who have no sympathy for the fading aristocrats. But I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to make even Ranevskaya and Anya look ridiculous. And in act four the actors are wearing contemporary costumes because the modern world has taken over. By that time I’d started swearing under my breath.

You can get away with some extreme concepts when you stage Shakespeare or Molière or the Greeks, but when you start futzing around with realist plays from the modernist canon that are tied to a specific time and place, the results serve neither those plays nor, God knows, the poor trapped actors. I might not have liked Kyle Beltran as Trofimov or Susannah Flood as Dunyasha or Quinn Mattfeld as Yepikhodov or Tina Benko as Charlotta Ivanovna, but it’s hard to say for sure, since their glaring, overstated performances bespeak a basic incomprehension of the characters they’re playing that could just as easily have come from Godwin’s gloss of the text. On the other hand, Celia Keenan-Bolger is a terrific actress whose work I’ve always liked and admired, so the fact that she’s so ill at ease here can’t be her fault. She has one good scene, Varya’s final, awkward exchange with Lopkahin, whose proposal of marriage she’s been waiting for. I’d like to see her try this role again in someone else’s production.

In the midst of all this foolishness, somehow Lane and Glover, Perrineau and Grey manage to get to some of the glories of Chekhov’s play. I wouldn’t have missed their work here for anything. But unconsidered, self-indulgent productions like this one tend to put me in mind of something the film critic Pauline Kael wrote about a long-forgotten movie called Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man: “The moviemakers who claim to be watering the flowers on the graves of the great seem to use their own water.”

 – Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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