Review of *The Present*, 3/9/17
I saw *The Present* on Broadway on 3/9. The show had two things going for it: it was starring Cate Blanchett, in her Broadway debut, and I got a ticket for $43. It had two things against it: it was three hours long and it was an adaptation of a play by Chekhov.
My experience with Chekhov got off to a great start, with the movie *Vanya on 42nd Street* in 1994 (on my first visit to New York, actually). A brilliant movie and a sublime performance of *Uncle Vanya.* Then I saw *Vanya* at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI in 2001, that was brilliant. I should have stopped with *Vanya* at that point - - I saw a production at some (now defunct) theatre company downtown when I first moved here. The show was a bore but I loved the samovar. Typical. I gave *Vanya* one more try in 2012, when the Sydney Theater Company came to City Center with their production, starring Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh, also Hugo Weaving. Again, deadly dull.
I saw a Russian production of *The Cherry Orchard* at BAM in February 2016. That show was dull and strange. I thought seeing it in Russian (with titles, thank you very much) would make the experience richer, but it did not.
The apex of Chekhovian boredom was a Broadway production of *The Seagull* in 2008. It had a starry cast; Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard, Zoe Kazan, some other great actors. Ben Brantley had seen the London production and said it was the most perfect production of a Chekhov play he had ever seen, and he liked the Broadway transfer just as much. Mind numbing boredom. I fell asleep a few times in the third act, and each time I woke up, annoyed. "This shit is still going on?" And I willed myself back to sleep.
I've never seen *The Three Sisters,* and am understandably wary of it. I get the feeling that actors like doing Chekhov more than audiences like seeing it. I told Richard that I thought I'd probably walk out of *The Present* at intermission. He said that was a bad attitude to have going into the theater.
Well cut my legs off and call me Shorty! The show was a blast! Hilarious! Madcap! Andrew Upton did the adaptation (should I mention that he's Blanchett's husband?) and he added some much-needed zip to Chekhov. He moved the setting up to the mid-90s, kept it in Russia, and the all-Australian (all making their Broadway debuts) cast spoke with their own accents, which were a delight to hear. One actor, early in the play, was describing how he and his new girlfriend spend their time. "Walking down shady lanes..." But it came out more like, "Woh-king daywn shyyyyy-dee lyyyynes..."
It's a large cast in this show - - thirteen. People who are related to each other, married to each other, have a long complicated history, or have only just met and have contempt for each other. He plays them off each other brilliantly, and paces things well: often there are six or more people onstage, sometimes ten or eleven, so when there are only two people it feels suddenly intimate, you feel like something shocking or louche is going to happen. It's like *The Big Chill,* only on a Russian country estate and with dissipation and fretful high spirits instead of rosy Motown-infused warmth.
Rifles were shot, people danced to "Burning Down the House," sexual advances were made, accepted, and denied, sometimes all at the same time. Lots of vodka. I couldn't wait to see what happened next, and that's what we want most when we go to the theatre, right? This is what was missing from those other Cheknov shows, the excitement! The big finish wasn't a sadder-but-wiser wimpy yawnfest, it was a real blood-and-guts theatrical finale. Who knew that Chekhov could be so much fun.
A quick word about the performances: Blanchett was, of course, dazzling. This woman holds nothing back. Her second act show-stopping monologue was one of the most thrilling, jaw-dropping moments I've ever seen onstage. WOW. Richard Roxburgh was the other lead, he was a riot, so full of himself, so pitiful and yet appealing. A tricky combo platter, no? And one of the supporting roles was played by an actor with the unlikely name of Chris Ryan. He didn't look like Chris Ryan to me - - here's a picture with him on the left, Roxburgh, Blanchett, and Toby Schmitz (the guy who was "woh-king daywn shyyyyy-dee lyyyynes..."):