How it’s New York: ‘The Present’ with Cate Blanchett runs on Broadway, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
How it’s (Irish) Australian: Blanchett hails from Melbourne, Australia; the show comes to us via the the Sydney Theatre Company. Since itis an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Platonov,” his early (and really, untitled) play, this show is also “Celto-Slav” and Russian.
It helps to read the play first.
That’s an unusual suggestion for me– usually I like to let a work stand by itself. But here, it really helps to know what the set-up is before you go. Even if you just read an act or two.
All of the elements of Anton Chekhov’s later plays are already there in his early work known as “Platonov.” Chekhov didn’t name the play, discovered 20 years after he died himself, and it has been called “Platonov,” “Wild Honey,” and “The Disinherited,” among others; it’s been adapted by Michael Frayn and David Hare; directed with rich theatrical gesture by Jiri Pokorny. Uncut, the play would last about six hours. But it’s all there: ennui. Fading, poor aristocracy. Possibility of a marriage of salvation. Empty trysts. A smart, disillusioned, unfulfilled schoolteacher.
So there’s much to love about “The Present,” an adaptation of that early work by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband), directed by John Crowley. If anyone knew how to put people, hurt, dissatisfied, unpredictable people, in a room together and see what happened, it was Chekhov (Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” owes him a lot).
Blanchett is completely luminous in her Broadway debut as Anna, a young widow who is celebrating her 40th birthday by inviting several suitors and friends to spend the weekend with her at her country estate.
That little synopsis, though, is more than you might figure out for quite a while, all but the 40th birthday bit, which is announced. While Blanchett, unusually perhaps for a film actress, fills the Broadway stage (doesn’t hurt that she’s not new to theatre; the production comes from Sydney Theatre Company, and New Yorkers have seen her before at BAM and City Center), finds fresh and surprising moments throughout– not least when she threatens to blow everyone sky-high in a gazebo after dinner– it takes a good act and a half before you’re really clear who is who and what is going on (the production is three hours long).
Chekhov got much better at letting the audience in later on. There are wonderful moments in “The Present,” but there are frustrating stretches of time as well, in which it’s not clear what’s at stake or why. Upton has reset the play in the mid-90s, during Perostroika– an interesting choice which vibrates perhaps with Chekhov’s unease over Russia’s success in the Russo-Turkish war– which ended in 1878, with Russia winning, but… what would happen next? Russia had to give up some of its terms with Turkey because of European pressure. One might say that attempting to join a Capitalistic world with Perestroika had a similar, fraught birth– and that it’s playing out now, as Putin attempts to take Crimea once again.
The show opens with Anna accepting a birthday present– possibly the present alluded to in the title, which could also allude to the current time– of a chess set from Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) whom you’ll eventually work out is a friend, and a friend of her stepson by marriage, Sergei (Chris Ryan). Who is he, her husband? Friend? Lover? It takes a good hour to be sure. Late in the play, Anna will be accused of playing chess with real people– that must be the symbolism here. Anna, you see, needs a wealthy husband now that The General has left her a widow. She has invited two wealthy suitors, one of whom carries a pager and is no doubt part of the burgeoning Russian mafia. That takes quite a while to work out.
The play’s central conflict is built around the presence of Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), a disillusioned schoolteacher who has trysts with three women over the course of the evening. Anybody’s guess why: he’s neither especially handsome nor seductive. But his brand of soul-searching articulate angst is apparently irresistible to women.
He’s also married, to Sasha (Susan Prior), Nikolai’s sister, and they have a child. Sasha knows he cheats, and loves him anyway. Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a doctor who’s done good work in Africa, had an affair with him as a girlfriend. She seems over him, but then he tells her he isn’t: and she isn’t. This drives her husband Sergei (Chris Ryan) to despair.Then there’s young Maria (Anna Bamford), a pretty blonde who falls for him. She’s Nikolai’s date, but no matter.
Certainly there are lively moments: Anna taking off her bra while Mikhail talks on and on gets a chuckle (because who hasn’t worn uncomfortable lingerie); ad an impromptu birthday party rave is fun, as are the late 80s-early 90s songs (sound design and composition by Stefan Gregory).
But Upton’s contemporary additions– a bit about Stalin, for example– while clever, don’t make “The Present” relevant to a contemporary American audience. Translating it into an Australian or American milieu might be even harder– making this a flawed undertaking from the start. And overall, it’s difficult to care about anyone on stage. You can see everybody’s’ unhappy, and you can even see why, but somehow it all lacks the punch of the end-of-the-road aristocrats in “The Cherry Orchard” and the unfulfilled intellectual of “Uncle Vanya.”
There’s a lot to unpack in “The Present,” but it’s more tissue paper than substance.