“People shouldn’t be going to plays,” says Ranevskaya somewhat ominously in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—or that may just be Dianne Wiest’s performance. Should you have ever tossed and turned in grief at Marilyn Monroe never having the opportunity to play Chekhov, Wiest’s simpering performance is dedicated to you.
There are, of course, more problems in this Classic Stage Company revival than just its leading lady, but hers is the mortal blow. Chekhov’s melancholy comedy about the loss of a family estate and the clash between the failing aristocracy and the newly empowered peasant is funnier in director Andrei Belgrader’s production than Chekhov’s plays are usually allowed to be, but it is amusing in a divertingly bizarre way.
Wiest’s pouty, girlish performance turns the whole tragic loss of the orchard into a remake of Gone with the Wind—if Suellen were in charge. Her Ranevskaya isn’t sentimental so much as scatterbrained; she seems mentally incapable of making a decision that could save the land. Wealthy former peasant Lopakhin (John Turturro, sounding more Brighton Beach than Russian) begs and pleads with her to turn her vast acreage into housing, but Wiest is too busy fluttering around and batting her eyelashes to pay much attention, a perfect avatar for the tonal blender into which Belgrader has tossed his actors.
How else to explain Roberta Maxwell’s satisfying but bizarre turn as the wry, biting Charlotta, performing magic tricks dressed like Cabaret’s MC? Or Josh Hamilton’s pointedly modern take on perpetual scholar Trofimov, airily announcing that he is above love? The performances run the gamut of styles, from the wistful pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin (Michael Urie as Epikhodov) to Daniel Davis’ Gaev, here a doddering uncle out of Evelyn Waugh. Not to mention there’s Belgrader’s bizarre staging of Lopakhin’s triumph, which involves ripping feathers out of the bottom of a chair with an obviously foam seat (you’ll spend the last 15 minutes sneezing as feathers continue to drift interminably).
Even the set design seems out of place. Santo Loquasto has contributed a round raised platform for the stage, but Belgrader often ignores its circumference and has his actors step off of it to perform. If the circle in CSC’s square doesn’t demarcate the room, then why have a stage at all?
Then again, if The Cherry Orchard is more funny than moving and the hard-nosed practicality of Lopakhin looks more appealing than the sentimentality of Ranevskaya and family towards her childhood home, why perform it at all?
The Cherry Orchard Through Jan. 8, 2012, Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), www.classicstage.org; $70–$125.
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