The Classic Stage Company (CSC) on East 13th Street is presenting Ivanov, a rarely seen Chekhov play from 1887 that is in part based on one of his finest short stories, “On the Road.” With Ivanov, Chekhov set out to create a Russian Hamlet, a character who suffers from the inner emptiness he had observed among the educated young of the day. The CSC production features the film and stage actor Ethan Hawke in the title role, supported by an admirable group of actors assembled by director Austin Pendelton, who is also in the company playing the role of Lebedev, a Russian landowner.
Ivanov is Chekhov’s first major play, written nine years before The Seagull and a quarter of a century before the magnificent The Cherry Orchard. Though Ivanov established Chekhov’s reputation as a playwright, he was dissatisfied with the play, called it “a dramatic miscarriage” and spent years rewriting it. The CSC’s staging uses a 1889 Chekhov rewrite of the play translated directly from the Russian by Carol Rocamora, which was approved by the playwright to be included in his collected works.
The play is problematic because its central character, Ivanov, as written, is an exasperating man for whom it is not easy to conjure up anything more than mild sympathy for, since his temperament is grounded in annoyance and indignation. When we first meet him he seems burned out and depressed. As an impoverished Russian landowner, he is married to Anna (Joely Richardson), a wife he no longer loves and who is dying of tuberculosis. He hates and reproaches himself for his callous way with her, for his inability to love, and for the invincible and persistent depression he feels. Clearly 20th century medical advances could of have helped him out of his dark quarry.
Though he is often called the Russian Hamlet, not even Hamlet – to whom he compares himself bitterly and unfavorably – has even lamented his own failures as Ivanov does. Hamlet in his moments of wild distress often acts rashly and violently. Ivanov does not. He just stews and festers. He waits until the play’s end and takes a sudden, melodramatic action.
But like Hamlet, he does expose and analyze and atomize his soul in some of the most remarkable speeches Chekhov ever wrote. Hawke turns one tremendous act two soliloquy into a virtuoso piece of acting.
Yet as brilliant and dazzling as Hawke's performance is in the role, it is hard to feel deeply for the man he is playing. Especially when Ivanov seems to be accosted by everyone he encounters, like the smug self-righteous doctor (Jonathan Marc Sherman) who tends his dying wife and harangues him constantly. Even his wife verbally assaults him in one sharp denouncing scene late in the play. Most of all, Ivanov accuses himself. His verbal flagellations occur so frequently that after a while the suspicion arises that he enjoys them in some eerily perverse way. Probably the most interesting comment on Ivanov can be found in Ronald Hingley’s book on Chekhov, who feels as a doctor Chekhov was making a medical study of Ivanov and the play should be viewed as “a medical tragedy.”
Ivanov gets a brief respite when the 18-year-old Sasha (Juliet Rylance) throws herself at him momentarily and gives him some hope. But after his wife dies and he is set to marry her, he can’t go through with it. He is too far gone in despair and self-loathing.
If all this sounds pretty dreary I must point out that not all of the play is lamentation. Chekov surrounds the brooding Ivanov with a stage full of Russian characters, funny, foolish, wise, brave, each one of them richly drawn in their individuality and all of whom greatly help to lighten the atmosphere.
Richardson lends exquisite beauty and voice to the character of Sarah, the dying wife of Ivanov, and in the scene where she denounces him she is bitingly effective. Rylance gives a lovely performance as Sasha, who, because she is young and romantic and idealistic, falls in love – or thinks she does – with this Russian Hamlet, and for a while lifts his spirits and his heart.
Glenn Fitzgerald, as Borkin, the manager of Ivanov’s estate, who has robbed him and exploited his weakness, brings a bellowing, wheeling and dealing force to the play. Pendleton is touching as the crusty vodka-loving kindly father of Sasha, and Roberta Maxwell is officious as her penurious mother.
The atmospheric estate settings of Ivanov and the Lebedev are by Santo Loquasto, the opulent period costumes are by Marco Piemontese, and the effective moody lighting is by Keith Parham.