Like a little Chekhov with your coffee?

Then keep reading…


In a Chekhov-heavy season comes another excellent production, The Cherry Orchard playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater. Chekhov’s final play tells the story of a noble family who has spent their fortune with a purely Russian frivolity and because of it is forced to sell their ancestral home and its huge, beautiful, and useless cherry orchard. True to character, these scions can’t manage either to stop spending or to sell the orchard, so it is inevitably auctioned off to pay their debt. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation and Sam Mendes’ direction would be a winning combination for any play, but a light hand is all that is required to guide this masterwork.

The actors certainly deliver light-handed, realistic versions of their characters. Chekhov’s femme fatales are mockeries of the name; femme flawed would be better. These roles certainly aren’t easy, requiring self-aggrandizing loud voices and silliness that ring patently false over the play’s wasteland of ideals. Sinead Cusack, as Ranevskaya, is true to her part, but hardly carries the lead role as Kristen Scott Thomas did in The Seagull. Rebecca Hall, recently seen in the movie Vicky Christina Barcelona, handles her character excellently. The male cast is strong in general, with Ethan Hawke in another solid performance as an intellectual, and the venerable Richard Easton as the butler Firs.

The production is solid and the remaining question is the same one The Cherry Orchard faced at its first production. Chekhov wrote a comedy, but its first director produced it as a tragedy. Stoppard’s rewriting leans toward comedy, but the question remains open. The ridiculous characters, the general insouciance, and the underlying conviction the Chekhov wants you to disapprove of the spendthrift aristocrats all beg you to take their downfall as lightly as they do.

For example, the family’s departure from their home is oddly anti-climatic. This is redeemed by the final scene, which depicts the family’s faithful old servant Firs, who has awoken to find he has been left behind, dying with only a twinge of sound to mark his passage. His death is a masterful finale for a play that hovers between tragedy and comedy, and, handled in this manner, it diffuses attention from the family just when your sympathies are most with them.

Chekhov’s disapproval likewise breaks through in an earlier moment, when an anonymous passerby interrupts the family (and the lightness of the play) to beg for directions and money. His grim presence is the breaking through of a Russian reality, the peasant reality, into their lives. The emotional declarations of the family, for all their more impassioned delivery, don’t have the same heft as his simple, serious words. By comedy, Chekhov indeed meant that The Cherry Orchard was a satire, and one whose unhappy characters illustrate unhappy views. His characters are so lifelike and unhappy we sympathize with them.
Despite his intent, Chekhov’s artistry outstrips his personal convictions, and in this case, the production itself. What struck me foremost was the play over the production. Chekhov crafted a thoroughly modern, neat, and emotionally satisfying drama that is both timely and timeless. This production at BAM, though by no means unimpressive, was like watching the Oscars and seeing a beautiful girl whose beautiful dress wore her.

Following in the footsteps of The Seagull, and now running concurrently with Uncle Vanya, BAM’s production of The Cherry Orchard enlivens any Chekhovite’s evening through March 8.

Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine March 2, 2009.

Leave a Reply