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THEATER REVIEW: Strong cast finds the humor in ‘The Cherry Orchard’


THE CHERRY ORCHARD/ Walking the dog Theater/ PS21

IF YOUR THEATER PARTY goes home arguing about the play, then picks up the argument again in the morning–and again at lunch, you will probably conclude that the play has been more than worth your time and shekels.
My party dragged up the old discussion about whether or not “The Cherry Orchard” is a comedy. (Chekhov insisted yes, although his producer/director Stanislavsky disagreed.) Many people, since its first production in 1904, cling to the idea that the play is tragedy. It ends with most of the characters finding a mildly satisfactory accommodation to their circumstances, almost meeting the old technical definition of comedy; but their accommodations have descended the social scale.
This production offers quite a few overtly funny moments. The charming Glenn Barrett as Gáyev provides many of them. Gabriel Rodriguez’ “double-trouble” clerk is amusing, delightful; but we playgoers muffle our laughter. The very politically-philosophically “advanced” student Pétya (played colorfully by Paul Boothroyd) gets a cruel if deserved deflation and falls down the stairs. Why are we hesitant to laugh? My theory is that audiences may arrive with too many Chekhov preconceptions; and a dreary set aids and abets them.
Of course “The Cherry Orchard” squirms and wriggles away from anything so bald as a comedy/tragedy label. Among its abundant virtues is its ability to cram a lot of fully realized individuals into a bit more than two hours. Chekhov exposes their utterly separate essences and displays them in their private boxes as well as together.
The fatuousness of Mme. Ranyévskaya (owner of the estate and the orchard) is only the most obvious aspect of her nature. Soon her pain, her poor judgment, her sensuality (sexual and other), her generosity, her dread of petty confrontation, her expectation of unearned pampering and respect, her kindness, her disconnect from reality, her dread of vulgarity–all of that and more emerges. The actress who plays her, Lora Lee Ecobelli, is obviously very able; still she seems miscast. (I kept wondering how the play would read if Ecobelli and Nancy Rothman, who plays governess Charlotta, were to exchange roles.)
The compelling face and mass of black hair belonging to actor John Romualdi helps him create a different kind of Lopákhin than you may be accustomed to. Yes, his character embodies the crass commercialism of the new order in Russia, the willingness to destroy a beautiful orchard (along with a revered old mansion) in order to create profit from a bunch of summer homes. But Romualdi manages to make the plan seem a reasonable solution, and he is easily believable as would-be rescuer of the family. It’s all there in the play, the crassness along with the good sense and good will.  The actor merely brings forward the attractiveness and good will part.
“The Cherry Orchard” reveals much of the social transformation taking place in that period from the freeing of the serfs in 1861 toward the coming Russian Revolution in 1917. A son of a lowly serf such as Lopákhin could become a millionaire; an otiose family of landed gentry could wallow in privilege and simply forget how their cherry orchard formerly produced profits; and an old servant such as Firs (played here by David Wade Smith) could parent his middle-aged master and long for the ancient serfdom in which everyone knew his place.
Director David Anderson moves his actors accordion-like, drawing them together in tight embraces and spreading them across the wonderfully generous stage at PS21. Of course, direction is much more complicated and subtle than just the blocking of actors. But I try not to wonder about Anderson’s rehearsal “process.” I am audience, taking what I get on any particular evening.
Sadly, no part of the orchard itself is ever in view. The characters spend much time at stage-edge, imagining it from imaginary windows. It is actors’ favorite spot, the place where they are most readily heard, seen, revealed. The area actually becomes rather tiresome. And the fact that the set abjures any softening of the scene emphasizes the drab, gray side of Russia in the 1880s. The only relief comes in the dancing scene on which designer Bradley Fay pours lovely warm light.  Where is the visual spring-ness and summer-ness of this particular time of year?
Varya, Madam Ranyévskaya’s adopted daughter, is realized by Lily Balsen, who somehow manages to make her sympathetic in spite of the character’s endless, angry carping. As Charlotta, Rothman is vivacious, and depressive, and beyond mad by way of her terrible, unendurable separateness. Joseph Freeman’s handsome, immoral Yásha is wonderfully despicable.
Josephine Elwood, playing the 17-year-old Anya, could use some seasoning and more voice. Natalie Li-Ting Wong is a perfect Dunyásha. David Wade Smith as Firs, needs to add age and fragility and to surrender some of his vocal vigor to it. (Also, no one who has 87 years will opt to lie down on a floor if there is any furniture within reach.) Phillip X Levine is Pishchik, a quirky, intensely individual, local-yokel land-owner.
Rejection of one sort or other damages–or has damaged–many of these characters.  Maybe that is why we are loath to laugh.
Surprisingly, Jonathan Talbott’s incidental music adds little and is sometimes too loud.
A whole season of Chekhov plays would be a good thing, dear Walking the dog—a kind of immersion, in repertoire perhaps. I know. More shekels please.  But think of the new human understandings! And the breakfast arguments!
See “The Cherry Orchard” through July 22 at PS21.

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