By Karen Isaacs
The Present which is now at the Barrymore Theater through March 19 is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s early play Platonov.
Even the title of Chekhov’s original work is a misnomer; he never titled the play and it was seldom produced. The fact that it was five plus hours in length may have something to do with that. The play itself was not published until the 1920s.
Yet it has fascinated many playwrights and directors in the last 30+ years. They have undertaken adaptations of the play – reducing it to a more reasonable three hours and trying to clarify both the plot and the issues the young Chekhov (he was 20 at the time) was trying to explore. Such well-established playwrights as Michael Frayn (Wild Honey) and David Hare have tackled adaptations. The Yale Rep produced a new adaptation by Ilya Khodosh in 2013 which received a lukewarm reception.
Now Andrew Upton has tried another such adaptation which is now on Broadway in the Sidney Theatre Company’s production.
Undoubtedly the reason for its journey to NYC is due to its star: Cate Blachett who is a former artistic director of the theater.
Upton has made a number of changes in the setting and characters
But despite all the changes and fine acting, the question remains “why bother?” It was clear the night I saw this three hour production that many theater-goers agreed; there were many empty seats after the intermission.
The Present is about the 40th birthday party of Anna (Blachett) at a country estate. It is definitely Russia but not the 19th century. It is set in post-Peresroika Russia during the rise of the oligarchs.
In order to understand the story, we need to understand the backstory that comes out in drips and drabs. Anna was a young woman when she married “the General” who had a son not much younger than her; he was 18. He was surround by his friend and his charismatic tutor. The General died ten or so years ago. Now they and some others have gathered for the birthday party.
So what happens during this long (three hour) and slowly paced play? The summer evening at the dacha reveals old loves, new infatuations, despair and need for money. Alcohol fuels the evening that lasts into morning and at one point, Anna threatens to literally “blow the place” up.
It seems that Anna and Mikhail had a “thing” back when she was first married; now Mikhail seems to be attracted by and attractive to every woman including Sergei’s wife and Nikolai’s girl friend. Anna also needs money, hoping to get it from the summer estate or through a marriage with either of two older suitors.
The problem is that it is hard to care about any of these characters, unlike other Chekhov plays where you become invested in one or more characters. About the only character that is vaguely worthy of our sympathy is Sergei.
Yes, there are some fascinating moments – a chess game in which Anna displays her total disinters, a wild party that ends Act 1 and some other moments. Unfortunately that does not satisfy you for the entire of the play.
So for this work to be partially successful, it will depend on the performers. Here, The Present is blessed with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh as Anna and Mikhail. They have worked together on stage – and in Chekhov—before and they interact beautifully. You can hardly take your eyes off of Anna and it is not just because she is stunningly attractive. She does manage to hold your attention. Her actions while sitting at the dinner table and becoming increasingly bored is priceless and surprising.
Roxburgh as the supposedly irresistible Mikhail matches her even if it never was clear to
me what made him so desired by all the women.
The rest of the cast, all members of the Sydney Theater Company acquit themselves well even if they don’t make you forget the short-comings of the play. But even Blanchett and Roxburgh can’t do that.
The set and costumes by Alice Babidge don’t necessarily stand out except for a few of Blanchett’s costumes and that may be because she inhabits them so wonderfully.
The title, The Present, is obviously meant to be taken in two ways – the gifts that are expected at birthday celebration as well as the need as one character puts it to ignore both the past and the future and concentrate on the present.
The Present is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street through March 19. Tickets are available Telecharge.