Volume 75, Number 5 | June 22- 28, 2005

Atlantic Theater Company
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Thru July 3rd
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Photo by Carol Rosegg

Laura Breckenridge, left, and Scott Foley in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

Comedic reinterpretation of a Chekhov masterpiece

BY Scott Harrah

In recent years, there has been an ongoing argument in academic and intellectual circles about the true intent of Anton Chekhov’s final play, “The Cherry Orchard.” Most theatergoers consider the four-act drama to be one of the greatest tragedies ever written for the stage. When the play was first produced at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, director Konstantin Stanislavsky depicted a dark, lugubrious story of an aristocratic family that is deeply in debt and about to lose their beloved estate. Most revivals of the play throughout the last century have been true to the original Russian production, but some contend that Chekhov was dissatisfied with the heavy-handed, gloomy tone the director infused into the text and the characters.

Atlantic Theater Company’s new production of “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by Scott Zigler, features a stellar cast of Broadway and prime-time TV veterans, and is based on a daring and risky adaptation by Tom Donaghy, with the assistance of Ronald Myer, director of the M.A. program in Russian Literary Translation at Columbia University, and Anatole Smeliansky, associate artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Donaghy claims that Chekhov intended the story to be a comedy, and that alone may anger some Chekhov purists. Reinterpreting a classic like this may seem outrageous to some, but Atlantic Theater is actually not the first company to mount a “comic” take on Chekhov’s masterpiece. In 2002, a British production also played up the text’s more lighthearted moments. Whether New York audiences will agree that the story and its characters are funny is highly debatable. One simply cannot deny that the core of the plot itself is more heartbreaking than humorous.

Brooke Adams exudes subtle charm as Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya, the nearly bankrupt aristocrat that travels back to Russia from Paris to deal with the sale of her family’s orchard. Yermaoli Lopakhin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a onetime serf from the estate who has recently become a successful businessman, offers a simple solution to the problem—sell the orchard and build summer cottages on the land. Madame Ranevskaya and her ineffectual brother Gayev (Tony nominee Larry Bryggman) quickly reject the plan.

“The Cherry Orchard” has always been known more for its many subplots than one simple storyline. Chekhov created a complicated tapestry of dramatic incidents, existential philosophy and everyday encounters instead of a single narrative thread. The only villain here seems to be the changing socio-economic landscape of tsarist Russia—one that is quickly disassembling all former notions, privileges and traditions of the upper classes.

The cast has some distinguished names indeed, including New York theater legend Alvin Epstein (as the servant Firs), and Broadway stars Laura Breckinridge (as the daughter, Anya) and Peter Maloney (one of Mme. Ranevskaya’s neighbors). But the production’s one true trenchant performance is given by Scott Foley (of TV’s “Scrubs” and “Felicity”) as the young student radical, Pyotyr Sergeyevich Trofimov. Not everyone will enjoy spending an evening with Chekhov characters revamped and retooled as existentialist vaudevillians. There are myriad “new” aspects of the play in this adaptation, such as sound effects that, at times, seem less dramatic than cloying. However, Chekhov enthusiasts may enjoy seeing some of the added material in Donaghy’s script, especially a scene featuring Firs and governess Charlotte (Mary McGann) that is usually deleted in most revivals.

Does Atlantic Theater Company’s “Cherry Orchard” truly blossom with black humor as the author purportedly intended? That will be a difficult question for any fan of the original Russian production—or the essentially tragic 1977 Broadway revival at Lincoln Center (with Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, and Diane Lane in the cast)—to answer. This is a controversial, thought-provoking interpretation of “The Cherry Orchard” that will most likely be argued about amongst Chekhov fans throughout the city.

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