A teenaged Anton Chekhov wrote an unwieldy, untitled play that was never produced during his lifetime. It resurfaced after his death and has been adapted by fine British writers like Michael Frayn and David Hare under the titles Wild Honey and Platonov, the latter the drama’s eponymous protagonist. Chekhov’s original runs over five hours in performance, and that we are spared an extra two hours of one of the few reasons to be thankful for Andrew Upton’s adaptation, pointlessly titled The Present, starring Upton’s wife, Cate Blanchett and a host of hard-working Australian performers from the Sydney Theater Company.
Still, that means that, for three hours, we are harangued by a fatiguing group of Russians gathering for a weekend in the country to celebrate widow Anna’s 40th birthday, including her stepson Sergei and his wife Sophia; Mikhail Platonov and his wife Sasha, and Nikolai and his girlfriend Maria. Mikhail, Sergei and Nikolai are lifelong friends, and Anna has been close to all of them: but she is closest to Mikhail, who also had a fling with Sophia years ago—a dalliance which seems about ready to continue—is looking to seduce Maria and (why not?) Anna herself.
Although it has the usual Chekhovian ingredients—including one of the most important, a loaded gun—the messy stew that is The Present isn’t entirely the original playwright’s fault, for his humanity occasionally peeks through the mishmash. Instead it’s Upton’s: the adaptation (which at least whittles the head count down to a more manageable baker’s dozen) is scuttled by an inability to make any sense of the many narrative and emotional layers the young Chekhov piled on. And updating the setting to late 1980s glasnost-era Russia, whose oligarchs have their own set of complications, doesn’t make things any clearer.
Director John Crowley does Upton no favors by ratcheting up the performances to the point where even an A-1 scenery chewer like Blanchett seems downright dour as Anna, perking up only when she holds a gun or flails around lewdly to the dance hit “What Is Love?” in a ridiculously pointless scene. Other music choices are also suspect: there are Clash songs blaring at the beginning and end of scenes, but why would these Russians listen to the Clash? Just because Mikhail hands Anna a cassette of the group’s London Calling album doesn’t justify the aural intrusions.
The opening moments, after the first-act curtain rises, are lively and amusing as these people wander onstage after they arrive for the weekend celebration. But it all quickly palls for the audience as endless discussions of life, love, betrayal—and even a certain American movie Mikhail saw—are indistinguishable and anything but illuminating.
In a solid cast of thirteen, Jacqueline McKenzie (Sophia) and Anna Bamford (Maria) score best as they nearly create full-blooded characterizations, while Blanchett and costar Richard Roxburgh—our erstwhile stars—give workmanlike but uninspired performances in roles they are too old for, especially Roxburgh, whose middle-aged Mikhail is never a convincingly irresistible 27-year-old heartthrob.
Adapted by Andrew Upton after Chekhov’s Platonov
Directed by John Crowley
Performances through March 19, 2017
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus