Anton Chekhov’s first attempt at a drama was a sprawling 300-page manuscript begun at age 18, in 1878, and finished a few years later while he was in medical school. Chekhov put the play away, never to see it produced. Originally titled Fatherlessness, it was published only in 1923, nearly 20 years after his death, under the title Platonov, and first produced (in German) in 1929.
Out of this source material, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Andrew Upton has fashioned The Present, billed as “after Anton Chekhov’s Platonov.” The Sydney production is now in a limited Broadway engagement, with a thoroughly excellent Australian ensemble cast led by Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in her Broadway debut.
Upton’s script pushes the action forward to Russia’s glasnost period in the 1980s. But the political and social preoccupations of educated Russians like Anna Petrovna (Blanchett), widow of a respected general now dead some 20 years, and Mikhail Platonov (Roxburgh), friend and charismatic former tutor of the general’s sons by an earlier marriage, resonate through the ages.
It’s Anna’s 40th birthday celebration, and the animated feels very Russian, literary-Russian anyway, but not tied to a particular time – a mark, I suppose, of the genius of even the very young Chekhov. The external circumstances aren’t terribly important to the story, but they’re resonant: Anna must find a wealthy husband in order to develop the valuable mines on her property and thus maintain her station in life (an early take on the themes of The Cherry Orchard).
On the eve of her birthday, Anna is thus prepared to marry Alexei (Martin Jacobs), an old man prone to seizures. But the arrival of Mikhail, an old almost-flame, upends her free-spirited equanimity, stirs them both deeply, and of course fuels the plot. Mikhail totes not only his wife and baby son, but an irresistible magnetism, and – with major consequences – an appetite for every female on the premises, including another old flame, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), newly married to Anna’s stepson Sergei (Chris Ryan).
Along the way there are (literal) fireworks, gunshots, lovemaking, soul-searching, a blistering dance party, lots of laughs, fisticuffs, and a surfeit of dramatic techniques. Each of the three-hour play’s four acts unfolds as a different type of drama. But if Chekhov wasn’t yet able to marshal his blooming, many-faceted gifts, Upton and director John Crowley shape and sharpen the material into a slowly percolating, soul-tugging, and brightly sparkling tour-de-force.
Blanchett’s Anna is as complex a lost soul as Broadway is likely to host this season, her yellow-hot energy as vital and clamorous when she’s fuming in silence at the dinner table as when she’s swooping in desperate high spirits from friend to friend in Act I. Roxburgh, in the most central role, is just as compelling, whether swaggering coolly onto the premises in unnecessary sunglasses, breaking down in tears as old friends and flames parade before him during the experimental Act III, or nimbly managing the farcical side of his romantic entanglements. The rest of the large cast matches them in conviction, from the blustery, inebriated old Ivan (Marshall Napier) to the young idealist Maria (Anna Bamford).
The Present is Blanchett’s Broadway bow, but while it might feel like a Broadway debut to her, it doesn’t to a reviewer who has seen her at BAM’s Broadway-like Harvey Theatre in Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire. While she’ll likely forever be best known as a movie star, she has made a home away from home for herself on the New York stage. If nothing else, the huge, officially corralled pack of autograph-seekers waiting on 47th Street made that clear.
The Present is at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre through March 19.