Monday, January 19, 2009

Cut down those trees already

Just before intermission at The Cherry Orchard this weekend, I could see the Sheila's eyes glazing over in the semi-darkness. Yet it's not like the evening had been eventless so far: A man sitting in the middle of a row suddenly got up and left during a very quiet scene, creating quite a stir—but then he did not actually leave the theater, he just sat in an empty seat across the aisle from me. And stayed there after intermission. Then there was the gentleman holding a paper bag on his lap and rustling it absent-mindedly—and quite loudly—at regular intervals. Then there were the four people who arrived an hour late and were seated anyway, despite the fact that two of them were in the first row (which is very very close to the actors at BAM's Harvey Theater). Then there was the person who erupted in braying, quasi-hysterical laughter out of the blue.

As you can see, it was action-packed. And it wasn't too bad onstage either, so I told the Sheila she should stick with it because we were seeing a pretty good Chekhov.

I'm not the biggest Chekhov fan so it's a bit unfortunate that old Anton is hot on the New York stage right now. The Seagull flew off less than a month ago, Uncle Vanya is in previews at CSC, and Sam Mendes is having his way with Ranevskaya et al. I'm sure there's more on the horizon but honestly it depresses me a bit just to think about it.

As far as this Cherry Orchard goes, however, Mendes does a fairly decent job of balancing the drama and comedy that so bewilders directors. Aesthetically speaking it's a little too close to the Lincoln Center production of Coast of Utopia, especially when Mendes brings up a line of silently threatening representatives of the lower classes. (If only angry waiters and bank tellers could pop off at Barneys and Bouley to scare off hedge-fund managers and guilt-trip fashionistas.) But overall it's not too bad, and there's a couple of visually striking scenes, which is a couple more than in most mainstream NY productions, which seem directed by blind people.

But it's the acting that rocks. While I usually cannot stand Simon Russell Beale's hamming, he keeps it in check and delivers an affecting Lopakhin. My favorites were Sinead Cusack as Ranevskaya and Rebecca Hall as Varya. For the first time I didn't get terminally irritated and frustrated by Ranevskaya's refusal to sell her orchard: Yes, she's blithely clinging to a dying world, but Cusack made you understand why, and understanding helps keep the disdain at bay. As for Hall, her ramrod-straight posture barely disguised cracks of pain. And what a voice! Low, sexy—almost Elizabeth Marvel–ian at times. I cannot wait to see this gang in The Winter's Tale, which they will do in rep at BAM starting in February.

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