THEATER REVIEW: The Present
Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York, January 15, 2016
The curtain rises on Cate Blanchett with a pistol in her hand. She looks out at the audience, then at the pistol with a grim, steely countenance. It’s a gift she’s received for her fortieth birthday. As the adage suggests, we know Chekhov’s gun will eventually go off. But while we prepare for the first shot to fire, we must wait for any sparks to fly at all.
The play itself, The Present, is a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s first full-scale effort Platonov, which apparently rambled on for five hours and needed significant work to make it coherent. Andrew Upton, the playwright here (and husband to Ms. Blanchett), has translated many works—including Chekhov—for the Sydney Theatre Company. I enjoyed his vulgar take on The Maids and loved his sultry Uncle Vanya. But the heart of this play eludes him at times. In wrestling the work into 1990s Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the show feels stuck between a translation and an attempt to be contemporary.
Each act feels like its own separate world. Act One is long and confusing; there’s a cast of thirteen characters to introduce, and they carry on mundane conversations for an hour while we try to parse why everyone’s come to this party. Then Act Two (the best part) kicks off when Blanchett fires a shotgun into the air during dinner. She’s bored, of course; time to liven up her birthday. (She’s also hidden dynamite in the walls to blow up the room, like you do.) Soon the drinks are flowing, she’s dancing to ‘90s pop on the table, and everyone is wound into a frenzied, end-of-the-world party drenched in sweat and vodka and lust.
During this drunken haze, Blanchett’s character Anna, recently widowed and trying to marry rich again to keep her estate, tries to seduce her old flame Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh). He’s brought his wife to Anna’s birthday, but that doesn’t matter. His roving eye is also fixed on a few other ladies at the party. But here, before everything explodes, Anna wants to pick up where they left off twenty years ago. Blanchett and Roxburgh together are electric, resuming their chemistry from Uncle Vanya and many other plays they’ve done together. Roxburgh is tremendously appealing as this smarmiest of cads. In Act Three—set in a dream-like mist after the festivities die down—he sits center stage, his various friends and lovers drifting by in the night, and he finds tremendous vulnerability in a man so insatiable and unprincipled.
By Act Four, the most classically Chekhovian, and the most melodramatic, I was entertained and bemused. There’s some additional good work from the cast, notably Toby Schmitz as old family friend Nikolai. And it all ends where you might expect, given that haunting first image of Blanchett, cool on the surface, unraveling underneath. Despite the indecisive tone(s) of the play, it’s hard to regret seeing Cate Blanchett haul out her shotgun, or lying spread-eagled on the floor beckoning Roxburgh to descend to her. I hope these two will return to the U.S. in something entirely new and contemporary, where they can dance the night away together.