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A CurtainUp Review
The Cherry Orchard

Is it my Cherry Orchard? With the exception of two, three parts, nothing in it is mine. I am describing life, ordinary life, and not blank despondency. They either make me into a crybaby or into a bore — Anton Chekhov in a letter sent to Constantin Stanislavski who directed the play's 1904 premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre as a an unmitigated tragedy.
Cherry Orchard
Diane Lane as Ranevskaya, John Glover as Gaev, Joel Grey (rear) as Firs (Photo: Joan Marcus
Despite the author's above quoted complaint about the 1904 premiere production of The Cherry Orchard, treating it too much as a tragedy and ignoring the comedy intended to avoid boredom, it went on to become a huge success. While the good doctor turned playwright would no doubt have been pleased that audiences all over the world responded to his picture of a changing society, he would have had plenty additional occasions to be troubled by other adapters and directors handling the way his characters' let the tears work their way into his comedy.

In the case of this new interpretation of Chekhov's last great play, he certainly couldn't have complained that adapter Stephen Karam and director Simon Godwin didn't make every effort to keep him from being boring. The emphasis this time around is on the comedy with the poignant tears not really showing up until the last ten minutes.

Of course, the urge to adapt and modernize a classic play is hardly limited to the Cherry Orchard or for that matter Chekhov. Still for many playwright-adapters and directors updating Chekhov's plays has been almost as irresistible as doing so for the Shakespeare canon. Members of the new generation who've experienced great success are no exception.

Annie Baker who won a Pulitzer for The Flick , took time out from her prolific output of new plays to do an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Now Stephen Karam, whose terrific The Humans moved from Off-Broadway to a successful Broadway run, has also turned to Chekhov to make his debut as an adapter. Unlike Baker's adaptation which ran at the tiny downtown SoHo Rep (currently looking for a new home), Karam's new The Cherry Orchard is on Broadway under the auspices of the Roundabout Theater Company (which also premiered one of his other terrific plays in its black box venue).

As usual, the production in the American Airlines Theater comes with a top tier cast and design team. But while I liked Baker's detour into adaptation mode, Karam's adaptation had me hoping that he'll soon be back at his computer writing another play like The Humans or Sons of the Prophet

That's not to say that I would declare this new The Cherry Orchard to be the total disaster that our current Republican contender for the presidency has declared everything this country has done since Ronald Reagan's administration. It's a tricky play that has eluded the perfect new adaptation before. However, it's always worth seeing, even when only at its best sporadically as is the case here.
While Karam and Godwin have over-misstepped in ratcheting up the timely connection between the entitled and resistant to change landowners of Chekhov's and America's world, the performances include individual standouts and some that capture the the play's most poignant Chekhovian moments. The staging also has it's okay elements.

Before commenting on the good and, unfortunately the more dominant weak aspects of this production, a brief plot summary for Cherry Orchard newbies: The play's focus is on an entitled aristocratic family's stubborn resistance to its obsolete social and economic status, as their former serfs were happily embracing their new opportunities but aware of their former masters' continued failure to perceive them as equals. The play's lead aristocrat is the middle-aged Ranevskaya, who five years ago abandoned her daughter Anya and stepdaughter Varya for a lover who's now rejected her. This sends her home from Paris, just as her beloved estate is about to be auctioned off. Though neither she or her brother Gaev have a clue about how to save their beloved Cherry Orchard, they disdain a former serf's nouveau rich son Lopakhin's plan to parcel off parts of the estate for income producing summer homes. Instead they spend their time partying and ultimately paying the price.

This story-line is intact and movie star Diane Lane is a beautiful to look at and adequately grand Ranevskaya. Her meeting with Trofimov (Kyle Beltran),the man who tutored the son whose death she's still grieving is quite moving. The scene towards the end when she and her windbag brother Gaevv (the always excellent John Glover) are facing the exit of the now empty home the family must leave forever, is true Chekhovian moment. Unfortunately, for much of the play Lane given to overly grand gestures rather than really capturing the complexities of this character . Moreover, while Lane is billed as this production's star attraction, the focus here is more this production's African-American Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau).

Harold Perrineau is a good actor the casting of but his Lopakhin and several other characters is not so much color-blind as make-a-point casting, in short to bold face and underline the serf-slave society's kinship. And so, while Perrineau comes across as almost more of a star than Lane, his performance too is only intermittently outstanding — notably in the final act's famous "almost proposal" scene between him and Varya (Celia Keenan-Bolger) which true to Chekhov's style is both funny and incredibly sad.

When all is said and done, there are good performances from most of the cast, but intermittently so. The only members of this large cast who are consistently wonderful are Keenan-Bolger's Varya and Joel Grey's doddering old servant Firs.

The best thing about the new staging elements is the addition of a 3-piece band to provide musical interludes for the scene changes. I quite liked Nico Muhly's original music. However, like everything about this production there's a yes-but even for the praiseworthy ideas. Thus, when the band moves on stage for the third act party scene, they don't keep that from being too over the top — despite Michael Krass's eye-popping costumes and former governess-cum-family-hanger-on Charlotta's (Tina Benko) amusing magic tricks.

I can't find anything more to say about Godwin's ideas for depicting the cherry orchard that's at the heart of this family's lost way of life except that they're different: The stage actually features a platform that represents a giant chopped tree and the beautiful white cherry blossoms take the form of a series of chandelier-like Calder mobiles. The walkway between that tree and the rest of the stage serves for a lot of rather awkward exits.

Though the final, best and truest to Chekhov act made me happy I saw this production, it too had one of those yes-but moments. That's when Chekhov's Russian poetry reciting Passerby (Peter Bradbury) shows up as an angry homeless man quoting from Emma Lazarus. Another absence of a light touch to make the Russian-American connection. Fortunately, the final image is of the wonderful Joel Grey's sadly left-behind Firs.

For more about Chekhov and links to other of his plays has reviewed, check out our Chekhov Backgrounder

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The Cherry Orchard
Chekhov's play by Stephen Karam
Directed by Simon Godwin
Cast: Diane Lane (Ranevskaya), Chuck Cooper (Pischik), Tavi Gevinson (Anya), John Glover (Gaev), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Varya), Harold Perrineau (Lopakhin), Joel Grey (Firs), Kyle Beltran (Trofimov), Tina Benko (Charlotta), Susannah Flood (Dunyasha), Maurice Jones (Yasha), Quinn Mattfeld (Yepikhodov), Peter Bradbury (Passer-by), Philip Kerr (Station Master) and Lise Bruneau, Jacqueline Jarrold, Ian Lassiter and Carl Hendrick Louis (Ensemble).
Sets : Scott Pask
Costumes: Michael Krass
Lights: Donald Holder
Sound: Christopher Cronin
Movement: Jonathan Goddard
Hair and wigs: Paul Huntley
Music Coordinator John Miller
Original music: Nico Muhly
Musicians: Bryan Hernandez-Luch (Conductor/violin), Liam Burke (clarinet), Chihiro Shibayama (percussion)
Literal translation by Allison Horsley
Magic Consultant: Paul Kieve
Vocal Coach: Kate Wilson
Fight Consultant Thomas Schall. Stage Manager: Jill Cordle
Running Time: 2 and 15 minutes with one intermission
American Airlines Theater 227 w. 42dnd Street

From 9/16/16; opening 10/16/16; closing 12/04/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 16th press matinee

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