Saturday , April 20 2024
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.

Theater Review (Broadway): ‘The Present’ with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh

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.

The Present Broadway Cate Blanchett Richard Roxburgh Anton Chekhov

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.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

Check Also

Anthony Edwards, Prayer for the French Republic

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Prayer for the French Republic’ – Profound, Timely

In 'Prayer for the French Republic' questions are raised about the safety of French Jews with antisemitism on the rise. Wouldn't it be better to emigrate to Israel where it is safer?