Like Lyuoby Ranevskaya, the heroine of Anton Chekhov’s great play The Cherry Orchard, audiences at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre will spend a lot of time hoping something will turn up to change their fortunes. But alas, British director Simon Godwin’s production of this classic tale of a once-wealthy family who refuses to accept the shift in their fortunes and their way of life, remains hopelessly misguided in many ways.
Admittedly, The Cherry Orchard has stymied many a director, with its often-abrupt tonal shifts from comedy to tragedy and its less-than-tidy intermingling of the personal, the political and the philosophical. Here, Godwin directs too many of the early scenes when Ranevskaya (a luminous Diane Lane) returns to her Russian home after five years in Paris as if he were helming a sitcom on ABC’s Wednesday night lineup. Almost everything before the intermission feels rather weightless (except perhaps the seemingly cut-up section of a fallen tree that Scott Pask has designed to serve as the play floor). And there are only rare moments that deliver any sense of the underlying tragedy sure to come in the play’s second half (where Godwin finally finds firmer footing.)
Oddly enough, Stephen Karam, the ultra-talented author of The Humans and Sons of the Prophet, further muddies the waters with his new translation. Not only is it too contemporary in its language, but he takes a surprisingly unsubtle approach in bringing Chekhov’s underlying theme of class differences to the forefront. The savvy casting of African American actors in many of the prominent roles of ex-serfs and current servants, as Godwin has done, would have made the same points just as forcefully without Karam practically lecturing us on how some of these people have been or still are owned. (The bit when the scary-looking homeless man intrudes on the Ranevskaya’s picnic, and now recites a section of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus seems particularly heavy-handed.)
Sadly, though, it’s one of the actors who is the biggest problem here: Harold Perrineau, Jr as the once-poor, now-wealthy Lopakhin. For the play to fully work, it’s rather essential that Lopahkin come off a socially backward man, still markedly uncomfortable around Ranevskaya (whom he has idolized since childhood) and her family – especially her hard-working adoptive daughter Varya (a very fine Celia Keenan-Bolger), with whom he can never connect romantically. But Perrineau (who has been excellent in other circumstances) is confidence personified from the get-go, which makes his seeming inability to propose to Varya less than understandable. Even worse, his interpretation completely undercuts the play’s famed third-act scene in which Lopakhin finally exerts himself (supposedly awkwardly) after he purchases Ranevskaya’s house and orchard, thereby sealing the fates of her and her family.
Lane may not find all the hidden depths in Ranesvkaya, a woman of great contradictions, but she is always watchable and often mesmerizing. (She also looks great in Michael Krass’ costumes). If anything, I suspect Lane’s innate intelligence is a bit of drawback, as the too-romantic Raneveksaya makes not just self-destructive choices but unthinking ones.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. As might expected, Joel Grey makes the strongest impression as the elderly butler Firs, a symbol of 19th-century Russia left behind. He’s the only one onstage who pierces the heart. John Glover is delightful as Ranevskaya’s foolish, over-talkative brother Gaev. Tavi Gevinson is suitably lovely and innocent as younger daughter Anna. Tina Benko is lively as the governess-cum-magician Charlotta. Karl Beltran is suitably earnest as the perpetual student Trofimov. And Maurice Jones is properly arrogant as the uppity servant Yasha. Conversely, the great Chuck Cooper is a bit too broad as the needy landowner Simeonov (using big actors in small parts isn’t always a good casting idea), and Susannah Flood overplays the silliness of the maid Dunyasha.
Of course, no evening spent with these characters and the genius of Chekhov is a waste. There’s always a greater understanding of the foibles of human nature when the play is finished. Still, this wasted opportunity to make the most of this singular work is likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth of many.