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A CurtainUp Review

"I have not introduced a single villain or a single angel (though I haven't been able to abstain from fools); nor have I accused or vindicated anyone."— Chekhov about his fledgling play.
Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
What's an artistic director to do if his company has a love affair with Anton Chekhov but has already put on the playwright's fabulous four: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard . What Brian Kulic and the Classic Stage Company have done is to continue the romance with a new production of Ivanov. While Chekhov wrote a full length play when he was still in his teens, this was his first full-length play to be produced.

Ivanov's 1887 premiere at the Moscow Art Theater didn't create much of a stir though it did meet with considerable success when it resurfaced in St. Petersburg later that same year. Chekhov himself was never satisfied with it and did numerous rewrites. After a second production by the Moscow Art Theater in 1904, the play was rarely produced and settled in at the bottom of the Chekhov oeuvre. That is, until 1997 when Lincoln Center gave it the star treatment, with Kevin Kline as the eponymous broke and brooding landowner. ( my review) Since that David Hare translation there's also been a high profile version by Tom Stoppard and starring Kenneth Branaugh at London's Donmar Warehouse. NAATCo did a production with an all Asian cast

Even with the cleverest and most Chekhov savvy director Ivanov remains a duckling among Chekhov's swans, but Classic Stage has given its new production the swan treatment. Their duckling is good to look at and well worth watching for its display of the more fully realized elements of the swans to come. Helmed by Chekhov expert Austin Pendleton, who also directed CSC's Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, the play's tendency come off as all melodrama or all comic farce is given the right balance.

Ethan Hawke, an actor of considerable renown, adds the star power that has made every CSC Chekhov something of a hot ticket. Other major cast attractions include the lovely Juliet Rylance who was a standout in CSC's Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters, film and stage actressJoely Richardson, as well as CSC veterans Roberta Maxwell and Georger Morfogen.

To add to the sense of a repertory company, a rare experience for New York theater goers, the designers who created most of CSC Chekhov cycle are also aboard to create the sort of visible unity that had me thinking "wouldn't it be nice if CSC could find the funds to do a Chekhov marathon shades of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia." But enough wishful thinking, and on to how this duckling fares in the wake of the swans that preceded it.

At three hours, the production would benefit from losing ten or fifteen minutes. That said, however, it's not weighed down by slow spots. Austin Pendleton has indeed struck the right balance between the almost farcical humor and the tragedy of a group of people unable to adjust to the fact that their way of life is becoming obsolete, and will become more so in the turbulent century ahead.

Ethan Hawke brings an intriguing interpretation to the fledgling playwright's obvious attempt to create a psychologically complex character in the landowner who finding himself on the wrong side of history, is in a state of apathy and depression. Hawke is on stage even as theater goers are still being seated, twisting and turning on a sofa bed in Santo Loquasto's wide open space that serves for scenes at the Ivanov and Lebedev estates with just a few prop changes. When Hawke finally sits up and the play begins we see a man who's stopped caring about his appearance. If it were a hundred year's later a lot of pill popping would probably account for his spaced out manner.

As if Ivanov's neglect of Anna (Joely Richardson), the tubercular Jewish wife he no longer loves weren't enough, a too frank revelation and overt anti-Semitic outburst makes him unredeemably and shockingly unsympathetic. Yet, he's not a monster without a conscience. In fact, his awareness that his behavior is unjustified and cruel, exacerbates the self-loathing that's part of his depression. In the final act we glimpse the handsome nobleman the doomed Anna was instantly smitten with, which intensifies the tragedy of a once vital man allowing himself to become a burnt out case incapable of feeling.

The arrival of Ivanov's cousin and estate manager Borkin Glenn Fitzgerald) playfully wielding a gun marks the first Chekhovian representation of a principle the playwright never abandoned: A gun seen in the first act of a drama foreshadows its reappearance and use in the last act. The enterprising Borkin himself is a variation of the Chekhovian Russian who is ready to go with the flow of change, shades of Petya Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard.

Besides Borkin as an embryonic Trofiemov and the use of a foreshadowing opening scene gun (the maturer playwright learned to turn that device into a pistol shot denouement wihout bloodshed in Uncle Vanya) the play is awash in other signature Chekovian elements.

Take the one affliction all the characters complain about — boredom As the closely bonded three sisters are suffused with ennui in their provincial existence The Seagull's young Masha wears black because she's in mourning for her unlived life, so Ivanov's various landowners and their guests are bored, bored, bored. The variations on their proclamations of boredom are almost as common as the use of the "F" word in a Mamet play. Here are just a few variations on the common malaise: "My God, what boredom, you could die from it" . . . "We retire at eight from sheer boredom" . . . "I'm almost comatose from boredom!"

Typical too of the more mature plays, the story unfolds through a series of arrivals and departures These gettogethers are occasions for the largely disappointed gentry to express their yearnings. They may begin as celebrations but more often than not end on a somber note. Ivanov's second act, for example, brings everyone to the Lebedev estate to celebrate Sasha's (Juliet Rylance) birthday. The birthday party ends darkly when Anna shows up unexpectedly just as Sasha has declared her love for Ivanov and the two are embracing. Yes, Anna has every cause to be in shock, but to reiterate my comment on Ivanov's character — he's not a monster, just too weak to resist the lovely young Sasha. Given Rylance's charm and beauty, one can hardly blame him.

Ivanov is more obviously a comedy than the later plays. Fortunately, the actors delivering the lion's share of the humorous dialogue are superb. Glenn Fitzgerald is hilariously crass as Borkin, the entrepreneurially inclined estate manager. George Morfogen, who usually plays more serious parts, is a standout as the cynical Count Shabelsky who never has a good word for anyone. And director Pendleton, who became a multi-tasker when Louis Zorich injured his foot, handles the role of the somewhat hen pecked Lebedevv with panache. Serious and justified as his concern for the sick of heart and body Anna is, Jonathan Marc Sherman makes it hard not to laugh at his overly righteous pronouncements. There are other characters to satirize this blatantly anti-Semitic social milieu and its small talk fuelled by boredom and Vodka.

For an emerging playwright's work, this Ivanov offers a vivid picture of a society faced with drastic changes and an accessible translation by Carol Rocamora. Though the ending is not only predictable but contrived, this well-acted production is well worth your attention.

For more about Anton Chekhov see Curtainup's Chekhov backgrounder

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov
Translation by Carol Rocamora
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Cast: Ethan Hawke (Ivanov), Joely Richardson (Anna), Juliet Rylance (Sasha), Glenn Fitzgerald (Borkin), Annette Hunt (Avdotya Nazarovna), Stephanie Janssen (Babakina), Roberta Maxwell (Zinaida), George Morfogen (Shabelsky), James Patrick Nelson (Kosykh), Anthony Newfield (Guest), Austin Pendleton (Lebedev), Jonathan Marc Sherman (Lvov), Anne Troupe (Gavrila)
Scenic design: Santo Loquasto
Costumes: Marco Piemontese
Lighting: Keith Parham
Original music and sound: Ryan Rumery
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Stage Manager: Joanne E. McInerney Running Time: 3 hours, including one intermission
Classic Stage 136 East 13th Street
From 10/17/12; opening; 11/11/12; closing 11/25/12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer November 6th press preview
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