By: Isa Goldberg
Is it a bomb? Will there be a postmortem? Simply, questions people are asking about the The Present.
The Sydney Theatre Company makes its Broadway debut with this contemporary adaptation of Platonov, an early, unwieldy play, by Anton Chekhov. In its current incarnation, by Andrew Upton, directed by John Crowley, the setting (by Alice Babidge) is a contemporary country home in Russia, in a village that might as well be East Hampton, NY. To coin a Chekhovian joke, it’s a place everyone is dying to go to, but even at 110 miles from Manhattan, the trip is far too treacherous.
While it stars the unimpeachable Cate Blanchett, it’s not the on-stage wattage that is so earth shattering, but something more akin to tonnage. Weighing in with fierce intensity and concentration, these actors toss their thunderbolts with the virtuosity of demigods and goddesses. Some of the characters seem to believe they are – far more than most mortals. And as the third act is staged amidst a sea of clouds, we do have to wonder.
At the center of it all, is Platonov, a schoolteacher, a womanizer, and a liar. Richard Roxburgh brings a surprising physical and psychological prowess to the role. And it’s a formidable one, as it’s he who drives the action into this fantastical terrain.
The story, a dinner hosted by “The General’s” widow Anna (Cate Blanchett) on the occasion of her 40th birthday, turns into a bloody disaster. Perhaps that is our hostess’s wish. It doesn’t matter. Reality is banished. Impulse prevails. Comedy reigns. And tragedy befalls.
Only a few of the characters benefit from this. Most importantly Yegor (David Downer), who runs off with the cherry orchard, or in this case, the lease to the mines.
While we observe these prominent Chekhovian themes – the suppression of life, the destructive power of greed, the life of the mind – one is also aware of a multitude of contemporary influences. For one, Andrew Upton’s adaptation brings to mind the playful, albeit serious antics of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Costume and lighting designs by Alice Babidge and Nick Schlieper evoke David Hockney’s pop aesthetic. And composer/sound designer Stefan Gregory sets up some dirty dancin’ with songs like Haddaway’s “What is Love”.
“The whole place is charged and ready to blow!” Blanchett’s Anna threatens, in a performance that is worth of more than a trophy.
The Present *****
Jan. 8—March 19. Sydney Theatre Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue, Thu, 7 pm; Wed, Fri-Sat, 7:30 pm; Wed, Sat, 1:30