The Cherry Orchard

Court Theatre

An Ideal Husband

Court Theatre

In the theater, as in life, there are two ways to judge someone’s intentions: by what he says and by what he does. As we all know, the two rarely agree. And talk is cheap.

It’s especially cheap in the plays of Anton Chekhov. Not that Chekhov can’t make a prosaic phrase poetic. But Chekhov wasn’t after eloquence–he was after truth. He strove to depict what he called “ordinary life” in exacting emotional and psychological detail. Chekhov rarely placed profound truths in anything his characters said–or at least not in the big speeches that the characters themselves believe to be true. Consider for example the words of Dunyasha, the maidservant in The Cherry Orchard, as she lies in an amorous embrace with the manservant Yasha on the grounds of the estate where they work. “I’ve lost the habit of living the way common people do,” Dunyasha laments. “Here, you can see my hands, white as white can be, just like a lady’s. I’ve grown so fragile, so delicate, refined and ladylike, everything in the world frightens me.” This from a woman who has leaped headfirst into a torrid affair with Yasha.

Of course in Chekhov it’s usually the lack of action that speaks louder than words. He was fond of crowding a stage with the idle gentry and then letting them dither away an afternoon or ten. In The Cherry Orchard, that crowd centers on Liubov Ranyevskaya, the perpetually distracted owner of the estate where the play is set. Jilted by her lover in Paris, she has returned to her childhood home after a five-year absence, bringing along her brother Gayev, daughters Anya and Varya, and a slew of hangers-on. For three long acts they do little except complain that they’re broke and that their home and its renowned cherry orchard are up for auction. Now and again they distract themselves with singing and dancing. Finally, in the fourth act, they leave.

At least that’s the impression you get in Court Theatre’s terminally literal production, which takes just about every word of Chekhov’s play at face value. Director Charles Newell seems to think that because Liubov and company spend so much time professing their heartbreak over the impending demise of the estate that that must be what the play is about. The imagined tragedy is played for all it’s worth. Chekhov himself called The Cherry Orchard a comedy, a fact which Newell uses to insert a lot of broad, nearly farcical foolishness. To Chekhov, human beings are eminently ridiculous and infinitely pitiable: we never say what we mean, rarely get what we want, and regularly hurt others through our own absentmindedness. Chekhov’s is the comedy of recognition. When Newell tries to liven things up with some horseplay, it only turns Chekhov’s human characters into two-dimensional caricatures.

Then someone mentions that cherry orchard, and the actors sober up and stare poignantly into the distance. Newell even herds a bunch of them downstage toward the end of the first act, where they solemnly gaze out an imaginary window at the imaginary orchard for an eternity. This approach might work if the play were in fact about the looming loss of the orchard and all that goes with it. But it’s not. If you look beneath the dialogue to what the characters do–or more accurately, don’t do–it’s clear that no one gives a good goddamn about the cherry orchard. Anya is too busy planning a romance with the idealistic buffoon Trofimov, who declares he is “above love” (despite his private confession that Anya is the “Light of my life! My springtime!”). Varya is too busy mooning over the rich merchant Lopakhin, who is busy mooning over Liubov. Gayev seems to love the estate so much that he delivers a soliloquy to a bookcase (“Dear, honored bookcase! I hail your existence”) and even swears on his “heart and soul” that the estate won’t be sold. But what does Gayev do to try to stop the sale? He talks to the furniture, lies about, and engages in a lot of wishful thinking.

And what about Liubov, the emotional core of Newell’s production, whom he sends into repeated fits of despair over the estate’s demise? What does she do to save the estate she describes as her only happiness? Absolutely nothing. She could save it, and without much effort. She knows that the very rich Lopakhin is in love with her and that Varya is in love with Lopakhin. Lopakhin couldn’t refuse her if she pressed him to marry Varya and proposed an arrangement whereby all three would live together on the estate. So why doesn’t she? Because the estate is not her real concern. Hell, she’s been flitting around Paris for five years with her two-timing lover.

So what is her concern? She certainly doesn’t seem to want anything from the other characters in the play. She’s come home because her lover in Paris dumped her and she leaves when he takes her back. The estate and its orchard are a temporary staging area where she can work on her real agenda: finding someone else to love.

In fact, this is just about everyone’s agenda in The Cherry Orchard, but in typical Chekhovian fashion, love falls prey to timidity, hubris, and bad timing. As in Chekhov’s other comedy, The Sea Gull, affections are directed toward unattainable people. Moments ripe for sweet nothings expire into nervous twitterings. Love is a series of emotional pratfalls.

Chekhov didn’t bring all these people together so they could worry about getting evicted or so that an audience could philosophize about Russia’s transformation from a landowning economy to a merchant one. These circumstances are merely the dramatic background that gives the play a sense of urgency: all these mismatched infatuations will last only a short time. As David Mamet writes in his essay “Notes on The Cherry Orchard,” “The play is not ‘If you don’t pay the mortgage I’ll take your cow.’ It is ‘Kiss me quick because I am dying of cancer.'”

Yet there is hardly a moment of honest sexual tension during the production’s two and a half hours. Newell steers his actors clear of genuine emotional connections. He does allow certain pairings to paw each other briefly now and again or fumble through halfhearted romantic pleadings like kids at the prom, reducing Chekhov’s titanic undercurrent of sexual frustration to adolescent hormonal rushes. But on the whole, the characters resemble a collection of near strangers running around an anonymous hotel lobby.

It is this curious lack of a sense of place that transforms the production from merely misguided to nonsensical. For all the importance Newell sees in the estate’s fate, that estate is never really present. Todd Rosenthal’s set consists of a series of white walkways slashing across the stage at various angles. They create a striking image, but they spin the actors off on tangential trajectories rather than bringing them together onto a common playing field. This isn’t a house; it’s a fashion runway. One piece of furniture–Gayev’s beloved bookcase–is placed upstage center. Inexplicably, it remains there during the second act, which takes place outdoors on the grounds of the estate. Perhaps Gayev loves the bookcase so much he takes it out into the backyard with him.

Throughout, Newell encourages his actors, especially the women, to be as demonstrative as possible. When they’re excited, they jump up and down and clap their hands. When they’re despondent, they drape themselves over the occasional chair. It isn’t enough for Liubov to weep at the mention of her drowned son–she has to collapse into a pile on the floor. And to show her idleness, Newell has her rolling about on the stage, peeling off her shoes and stockings in a vulgar manner atypical of a woman of her breeding.

This Cherry Orchard is simply devoid of truth. Chekhov shows us how people act; Newell shows us how actors act. The enormous gulf between the two is spanned only when actors are encouraged to dig beneath the surface.

Unlike Chekhov, Oscar Wilde was a playwright infatuated with the superficial. His plays, with the possible exception of Salome, can be taken only at face value. Not surprisingly, Newell fares much better with Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, running in repertory with The Cherry Orchard. Amid the idle society chatter that Wilde raised to an art form, a political scandal brews. Sir Robert Chiltern, undersecretary of foreign affairs and a man of unimpeachable reputation, has a dark past. He sold a cabinet secret as a young man and made a fortune. The unscrupulous Mrs. Cheveley is the only one who knows the truth, and she’s out to blackmail him. Chiltern and his foppish friend Lord Goring jump through innumerable hoops to beat Cheveley at her own game–and to keep the secret from Chiltern’s pitilessly perfect wife, Gertrude.

After a sterile first act of stilted comedy and bloodless melodrama, the play kicks into gear, thanks in large part to Christopher Donahue’s winning performance as Chiltern. Donahue renders him endearing and pathetic while maintaining the utter blandness of a British gentleman. As Goring, Larry Yando puts in a few dozen gorgeous witticisms, though he can’t quite capture the languorous impudence that makes Goring such a seductive surrogate for Wilde himself (a man known to hail a cab to cross the street). Hollis Resnik’s Lady Cheveley is appropriately conscience-free, although on occasion her archness becomes so extreme she resembles the Wicked Witch of the West.

By the end of the fourth act, after Chiltern has been put through several wringers, this Ideal Husband has become unexpectedly moving. The general frankness off the production may take the edge off much of the comedy, but it helps intensify the play’s emotional core. Wilde said that a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, but here it works wonders.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Cherry Orchard theater still uncredited; An ideal Husband photo by Dan Rest.