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New York City Theater

"The Present"
Ethel Barrymore Theater

Watching the brilliant Cate Blanchett remove her bra while fully dressed is nearly worth sitting through the three-hour-plus “The Present.” Reaching behind her, conveying irritation, discomfort and frustration in one gesture, she takes off the encumbrance, then flings it to the floor in obvious relief.  In the same scene, she dances on a table and in its pre-intermission moments simply blows the place up. Blanchett’s Anna angry-funny tornado is a gem that outshines a work that fails to clarify where it’s headed, fails to connect its various parts. The production is filled with striking moments but fizzles when it should be a conflagration.

Based on Anton Chekhov’s unfinished early play, which has surfaced before as “Platonov” and “Wild Honey,” this time around the result is as obscure and diffuse as the smoke that engulfs the stage in the third of its four scenes. Yet there is spirit here, thanks largely to a fine ensemble familiar with the rhythms of fellow cast members.

Found in a safety-deposit box and first published in 1923, nearly 20 years after Chekhov’s death, the unwieldy work (which would have taken many more than three hours to perform in its entirety) was not mounted until 1928. By then, Chekhov had gone out of style in post-revolutionary Russia. Even now, how to perform him is debated. Did he write serious comedies or comic tragedies?

Director John Crowley and adaptor Andrew Upton opt for updating to the 1990s when the Russian nation is breaking up and its anxious people puzzle how to endure. That nexus evokes Chekhov’s belief that life’s most tragic moments are ridiculously funny. Rabelaisian humor undercuts the journey into the public terrors of a nation collapsing and the private ones of love unfulfilled.  “Young men filled with youth need love to guide them back to the world” is one key line. Interspersed are relevant contemporary songs, “Haddaway’s “What is Love?” and Ian Kevin Curtis’ ”Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Contrast lines about love with “All I can do is weep” and “Nothing is left,” the dramatic underpinnings of a world about to go off its tracks. The point is all in the title. Live for now, drink vodka (lots of it), make love. The alternative is being “trapped in lies.”

In and around a country summer house, built for Anna by her late husband, “The General,” a group of friends and relatives gather to celebrate her 40th birthday, talking past each other, wanting to escape the pathos of their lives  In the center are Anna and her onetime, would-be-again lover Mikhail Platonov, superbly limned by co-star Richard Roxurgh with a sensual melancholia. He’s a Casanova both randy and disillusioned.

In that smoke-filled third scene, Roxburgh sits in a chair, drinks and reminisces while characters wander about, searching for answers. With its abstract setting and its feeling of regret, the scene could easily be taking place in heaven, an indication of the production’s inability to articulate what’s at stake.

The wandering, the searching, the unworldly feeling are typical of the play itself. Confusion reigns, nothing much happens but, in the hands of the incandescent Sydney Theater Company, it happens with style.

--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 22, 2017

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