Diane Lane stars in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of The Cherry Orchard. This beautiful film actor (Trumbo, Unfaithful) can hardly be accused of helicoptering down to the Broadway landing pad: Last year off-Broadway she and Tony Shalhoub anchored one of the best plays of the season, Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery Of Love & Sex. As a very young thespian she appeared in the ensemble of a memorable Cherry Orchard with Irene Worth as the undone land-owner Mme. Ranevskaya, in a cast that included Meryl Streep, Raúl Juliá, Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Cristofer and Jon De Vries; Lane also performed in the original Broadway production of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways, recently revived by City Center’s Encores Off-Center.
Any major revival of this pungent Chekhov work stands as its own reason for commanding interest, but in addition to Lane, this one boasts a smart, economical adaptation by Stephen Karam, author of this past season’s Tony winner for best play, The Humans, with incidental music by the gifted composer Nico Muhly, with whom Karam wrote the powerful opera Dark Sisters (oddly unmentioned in their Playbill biographies).
This production is staged by Simon Godwin, an associate director at London’s National Theatre, and in keeping with current trends, it takes Chekhov at his word in classifying it as a comedy. Too much so, as it happens, in a mixed-bag of a production that despite some high points, struggles but fails to achieve a consistent tone. That leaves Lane somewhat in the lurch as Ranevskaya, who has returned from Paris after five years’ absence to her once magnificent estate, now on the verge of being auctioned off.
For all its numerous subplots and diversions, the play is essentially, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, a waltz to the end of a time: Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev (the physically eloquent John Glover) cling to a patrician past as a growing bourgeoisie threatens to displace them. The nouveau class is represented by Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau, in fine form), whose father and grandfather worked this land. With Ranevskaya’s return, Lopakhin announces that he has come into his own as a businessman and wants to save the estate by destroying it: He would cut down the cherry orchard and sell off the land in parcels, making him rich and providing the family with enough money to live on.
Much as I admire Karam’s work, he and Godwin conspire to score some contemporary political points while setting the action in a vague anytime. The script is sprinkled with anachronisms yet Scott Pask’s handsome, minimal setting and Michael Krass’s mostly period costumes (Lane’s form-fitting sheath for the final scene being a weird exception) point a century back. Karam’s most provocative change is to substitute the word “slave” for the text’s “peasant” or “serf.” Though the three terms are virtually interchangeable for Chekhov, the fact that Perrineau is African American imbues Yermolai Lopakhin’s triumph with a capital-T timely significance:
“If my father and grandfather could see me now, God,” he boasts, “if they could rise from their graves and see this twist of fate, see their beaten-down-pathetic-illiterate Yermolai, who ran around barefoot in the winter, see that same Yermolai buy this estate, the most beautiful place in the world, the estate where my grandfather and father were slaves, where they weren’t even allowed in the kitchen. God I am asleep, I am, I’m dreaming all of this, it’s just a…I’m making it all up…”
Too much of the show has a devil-may-care antic quality that not only leaves Lane at sea but also misuses such good actors as Chuck Cooper (as the ever-begging Simeonov-Pischik), Tina Benko (unbearably “exotic” as the governess Charlotta), and Tavi Gevinson as Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya. Three performances, however, make the visit to this orchard worthwhile: the textured turn by Celia Keenan-Bolger as Ranevskaya’s adoptive daughter Varya, destined for disappointment; Joel Grey as the ancient, befuddled yet dignified servant Firs; and especially Kyle Beltran as the student Trofimov, nicely balancing earnestness and real, if precocious, cynicism.
Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg has moved up from the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center studio to its comparatively intimate Broadway home base, the Friedman. Happily, Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt and this wonderful play have made the transition with deeper performances, even with the volume turned up a notch to accommodate the bigger space. It is, hands down, the most romantic, not to mention sexiest, show in town. While the title refers to Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of quantum physics, its relation to this brief exquisite play is, thankfully, purely metaphorical.
In a London rail station, Georgie Burns (Parker) has impetuously planted a kiss on the neck of Alex Priest (Arndt), a much older man clearly not keen on impetuous acts and seemingly impervious to Georgie’s insistent attempts at connecting. Nevertheless, through a combination of guile and wile, her come-on eventually proves irresistible to the modest butcher and lifelong bachelor who becomes her target.
I use that word intentionally, for Stephens tosses the question of larceny into the heady stew of Georgie and Alex’s enchanting entanglement. Not exactly in the sense of film noir — there’s no coy mixing of genres here — because Georgie is so deliciously upfront about her true intentions despite a propensity for fabulation regarding the details of her life. Instead, Stephens seems intent on taking every cliché of the August-December romance, observing it with micro-clarity, and then watching it wriggle and preen under his authorial eye as something fresh and emotionally resonant.
He is blessed with actors at the top of their form (and it’s great to have Parker back in her best role since Proof) and the incisive direction of Mark Brokaw. They’re a match made in the heavens. The production, designed by Mark Wendland (set) and Donald Holder (lighting) is so bare-bones as to seem non-existent: an all-but-empty playing area in which the actors move a couple of nondescript trolleys that will suggest a terminal, a bedroom, a hotel room in New Jersey. The acting is similarly stripped bare as, in the beautifully calibrated performances, Alex’s initial imperturbability yields to Georgie’s ever-more poignant persistence.
And then there’s Oh, Hello, about which, the less said, the better. A hoary vaudeville masterminded and performed by Nick Kroll (Comedy Central’s The Kroll Show) and John Mulaney (NBC’s Saturday Night Live), their Upper West Side alter kockers have ’em rolling in the aisles of the Lyceum Theatre with politically incorrect jokes, interspecies copulation, Norm Crosby-style malapropisms, idiosyncratic (and often incomprehensible) mispronunciations, and a tuna sandwich that would do the soon-to-be-departed Carnegie Deli proud. Staged as if their lives depended on it by the talented Alex Timbers, the whole thing is exceedingly idiotic or possibly just too cool for me.
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