Casually removing her bra or tying a pink ribbon into a perfect bow atop her head, Cate Blanchett makes erotic art of the inconspicuous act. That’s a neat trick and a handy gift for the actress playing one of Anton Chekhov’s two types of women, the ethereal beauty undone by ennui. (Type two is the non-beauty undone by idealism. We’ll get to her shortly.) In The Present, which opened Sunday at the Barrymore Theatre, the star is first seen holding a gun — as crucial to the Chekhov dramatis personae as inebriated malcontents and doddering servants — given to her on the occasion of Anna’s 40th birthday, the celebration of which is just getting underway.
As Anna, Blanchett is draped in a tissue-thin dress (the costumes and sets are by Alice Babidge, the ever-flattering lighting by Nick Schlieper) and she exudes the indifferent sensuality of a cat who prays desperately for a bird or mouse to come along and snap her out of her torpor. “I’m so bored!” she cries at one point during the eventful weekend, inciting déjà vu: We (well,t some of us) have heard these words before, coming from the same actress and the same playwright: The Present marks Blanchett’s Broadway debut, but she and the Sydney Theatre Company (which until recently she co-directed with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton), have visited Gotham before, notably in a memorable 2012 production of Uncle Vanya imported by the Lincoln Center Festival. Blanchett played the similarly afflicted — and equally dangerous — Yelena, who spoke those very words.
This early Chekhov play, usually titled Platonov, has been updated and abbreviated by Upton (who did the same with Vanya) to the post-Soviet era. It’s haltingly staged, one foot on the gas pedal, the other on the brake, by John Crowley (Brooklyn). That attack may seem at cross purposes, but it’s effective in a diffuse work whose chief attribute is the way it presages the obsessions a barely-20-year-old writer will later refine in the modern masterpieces Uncle Vanya and especially The Cherry Orchard.
A woman on the verge of bankruptcy, Anna is languishing at her dead husband’s estate. She needs to make a smart marriage if she is to retain a stake in the property; otherwise her stepson, Sergei (Chris Ryan), who sees her as little more than a gold digger, will get it all, leaving her penniless. Sergei’s here for the festivities, along with his wife, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a do-gooder doctor; his best friend Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) and Nikolai’s intellectual manqué girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford); and Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh, previously Vanya), who is married to Nikolai’s compliant sister, Sasha (Susan Prior), Chekhov female Type II.
Most of the men — including two appropriately wealthy older suitors, Alexei (Martin Jacobs) and Yegor (David Downer) — are in love with Anna. All the women, however, are or soon will be smitten with Mikhail, who in Roxburgh’s portrayal comes on like a pre-rehab Eric Clapton. Mikhail is (one hopes desperately against hope), a type who only appears in literature: The perpetually blazed, outspokenly miserable paragon of physical wreckage, disappointment, misanthropy and self-loathing who, despite it all, is an irresistible sex object happy for a tumble with any available skirt. Every available skirt. Roxburgh is a bit long in the tooth for the 27-year-old character, but in all other respects, he’s a perfect mess.
The very long set-up establishing all of this (on a set that, sadly but accurately, mimics every modernist horror despoiling the beaches of Long Island’s tony East End) climaxes in a party scene that finds Blanchett dirty dancing through the drunken revels, flirting with sordidness but from a safe distance of propriety, which truth to tell is quite sexy.
That leaves a lot of messy stuff to tie up in the post-intermission acts, and they’re not as much fun. Especially the final scene, in which Platonov (remember Platonov? It’s his play) sits on a bench in what could be King Lear‘s blasted heath or Samuel Beckett’s mind, as the men and women Mikhail’s betrayed march past, stopping to unload. Don’t forget that gun in Act I. I’m already thinking about the musical version, Anna Got Her Gun. But unlike Irving Berlin’s comedy, Platonov proves you can get a man with a gun.
More or less.