A few minutes into THE PRESENT, you may be surprised to hear the word “rubles.”
Until then – because of Andrew Upton’s script, John Crowley’s production and Alice Babidge’s set — you may have assumed that the play takes place in a tony Connecticut town.
To be fair, Upton, Crowley and Babidge may have wanted to stress that there isn’t much difference in the day-to-day living of the Russians and us. Still, it’s disconcerting to hear casual chatter peppered with such names as Sofia Yegorovna and Mikhail Platonov.
The latter’s surname has served as the title of this play’s source material since scholars decided to call it PLATONOV; Chekhov, its original author, didn’t trouble to give his first-ever play a name when he wrote it in 1881 – or was it 1882? No one’s really certain, for it wasn’t produced in the playwright’s lifetime (1860-1904) and went undiscovered until 1920.
It’s not top-notch Chekhov, but it’s damn good for a budding writer who was no older than 22. Those familiar with the playwright will recognize details that he inserted into his later masterpieces. There’s the possible loss of property that drove THE CHERRY ORCHARD and the teacher who’s in denial as Kulygin would be in THREE SISTERS. No surprise that a gun, so important to THE SEAGULL, is on the scene and just as significant in THE PRESENT.
In fact, the gun IS the present.
For a birthday party, no less.
Wouldn’t a bottle of vodka have been a better choice?
Upton doesn’t just rely on a gun, but adds a device that makes for a dynamic Act One curtain. That doesn’t reflect poorly on Chekhov, for what Upton’s added didn’t exist in the 19th century. Because he’s updated PLATONOV to modern times – although not “the present,” but the 1990s – he has modern technology on his side.
The updating also prompts a scene with enough stage fog to furnish a musical about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But no amount of fog can mask the stretches of dullness in the three-hour production.
Some of them are intentionally meant to show the bored and self-destructive lives of 13 people; others are just boring – and not in the fascinating way in which Chekhov conveyed boredom.
As in every other Chekhov play, someone’s in love with someone who isn’t the slightest bit interested in returning the affection. Everyone would be happier if he or she only accepted the highest bidder, but none of them knows enough to do that.
Upton has some good lines: (“Marriage is one long renovation” … “You’ve aged – but you haven’t changed a bit”) that are in the Chekhovian spirit. Characters come out with seemingly irrelevant statements that make us laugh because they inadvertently reveal so much about the speaker. A woman states that she plans to live a long life just before she casually adds that she has hepatitis, seemingly unaware that it could indeed shorten it. Later comes the man who says that Paris is great but doesn’t bother to give a single reason why. Then there’s the ex-convict who explains his crime by saying “Stuff happens,” which is much easier, isn’t it, than admitting “I made a serious mistake.”
What Upton has that Chekhov didn’t is Cate Blanchett, for she’s his wife. Her agreeing to do her hubby’s play must have been the main enticement for six individuals and three companies to produce it. Even the great Chekhov plays in the public domain rarely last more than a few months on Broadway, so a limited engagement of a lesser one would have to have star power, and this one does.
Would Blanchett have done THE PRESENT if another playwright had brought it to her? Don’t bet against it, for Upton has given her the best-written role. That’s not surprising considering that he’s lived with her for nearly two decades and must know her strengths better than any other writer.
He hasn’t miscalculated. Blanchett is terrific as Anna, already widowed at 40, which often happens to those who marry substantially older men. During the play’s first (long) scene, Blanchett’s voice alone reveals the depth of her pain and experience. In the second one (which seems even longer), the specific way that the actress blatantly displays her disgust and boredom is one you’ve almost assuredly haven’t seen in any on-stage drama and certainly not in real life.
And that’s not all. You may have heard that eighty-seven years ago MGM advertised the film of ANNA CHRISTIE by proclaiming “Garbo talks!” THE PRESENT could publicize its wares with “Blanchett burps!”
That so many theatrical savants chose to call the play PLATONOV suggests that he’s to be the focus of the drama; the fact that the plot centers on the women he wants and the women who want him – including his faithful wife Sasha – cements it.
Richard Roxburgh plays the provincial pedagogue who’s picked up the occupational hazard that plagues some teachers – not very many, to be sure, but some. Each day they’re surrounded by immature and uniformed children who cannot bring out the best in him. There are those teachers who aren’t able to grow and instead stay emotionally stunted by the company they keep. A teacher runs the risk of simply becoming the biggest kid in the class, a de facto bully who has all the power.
And we get the impression that that’s Platonov.
Note that at the party that he sits at the head of the table. Was he given that position or did he feel entitled to it and simply take it? Roxburgh gives Platonov both the floor and the confidence, although you’ll see such assertions as “True friendship is the only kind of love that cannot be corrupted.” It’s a lovely line, but it may make you think of all the friends who “loved” you but then betrayed or dumped you.
Platonov blathers on. He can’t remember the name of a film he’s seen, but he makes it YOUR responsibility to fill in the blanks of his mind.
You know the type – and so does Roxburgh, who plays his role exceedingly well.
However, neither Upton nor, for that matter, Chekhov can make us understand why any woman would be so attracted to him. It can’t be his money, not on a schoolteacher’s meager salary. Granted, as the line goes in THE BOYS IN THE BAND, “In affairs of the heart there are no rules,” but Roxburgh doesn’t seem to have enough charisma to warrant all this attention and ardor.
The other 11 actors adequately do their jobs, which is not meant to suggest less than adequate. “Adequate” adequately says it.
And so it goes. The avoided kiss that tells us who’s in love and who isn’t; the flaws that many characters blatantly admit that display their lack of self-esteem. Frankly, such moments don’t happen often enough. Just as magicians are always saying “Now you see it; now you don’t,” with THE PRESENT, it’s a case of “Now you’re interested; now you aren’t.”
Finally, a 40th birthday party would seem to be late in the game for a room festooned with childish balloons. Or in Russia are they de rigueur for a party regardless of the celebrant’s age?