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The Present

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh. Photo by Joan Marcus

The Present, Anton Chekhov's unfocused and drawn-out melodrama is enlivened by the Broadway pairing of charismatic Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh.  Blanchett entices audiences to Broadway's Barrymore Theatre and with Roxburgh's magnetic energy, she keeps them there.  Without them and the stellar Sydney Theatre Company cast of 13, Chekhov's first play may still be in the safe-deposit box where it was hidden until 16 years after his death in 1904.

Chekhov never gave this first play a title and for years it was called Platanov.  Playwright Andrew Upton (Blanchett's husband) revisited the play and renamed it, The Present for the Sydney production.   Appropriately, he updated the script to post-perestroika Russia and thankfully, its original five hours was cut to a more manageable, but still laborious, three hours with a punk rock soundtrack including The Clash, adding a cool splash of faddish energy.  The title might also refer to the birthday celebration of the show's central character, Anna (Blanchett), and actually one present she receives is a pistol.  In Chekhovian tradition, any firearms in his plays must go off before the end and here we have a wearisome wait for the final shot. 

Directed by John Crowley (2015 film, Brooklyn), Anna is celebrating her 40th birthday with long-time friends and family at her country home, "The Folly".  She is a wealthy widow and since  there is a lot of back story behind The Present, the diverse birthday guests are old friends and family.

Unfortunately Anna is not having a great time.  "I’m so bored. Bored and disappointed."  This does not negate her long-time lusty streak for Mikhail Platanov (Rosburgh), a complicated Slavic Lothario and once her lover. 

"Just take me. Shake me. Smoke me. Reduce me to ashes," she pleads to Mikhail who has arrived at the party with his wife, Sasha (Susan Prior).  The diverse guest-list is complex, all wandering in and out with their personal traumas. Over vodka-soaked hours that leave everyone drunk and wildly energized, Crowley gamely strives to keep the hodgepodge stimulating with revisits of old love affairs, nostalgia, the future's inevitable adjustments and bursts of welcome humor. 

All eyes, however, are on the two leads.  Roxburgh portrays a frayed once-irresistible allure that we see dissolve into demoralizing self-hatred.  As Anna, Blanchett is impossible to ignore, slickly slipping off her bra and tossing it over her shoulder.  When she dances on the tabletop, shaking and swiveling, Blanchett proves that she is a sexy, funny, high-powered stage presence.    

Alice Babidge designed simple sets of a country home with patio, dining room and, for some reason, a strangely misty interior.  She also designed contemporary costumes for the characters and Nick Schlieper provides lighting with sound design by Stefan Gregory. 

Despite the fine production values and outstanding performances by Blanchett and Roxburgh,  three hours of this muddled, interminable tragicomedy is not much more than a first draft of Chekhov's later well-formed theatrical visions of Russian society.

* Addendum: Guests adding sound and fury to Anna's party include her unsophisticated stepson, including Anna's unsophisticated stepson, Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his humanitarian bride, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), Sergei's childhood friend, now a self-deceiving doctor, Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) and his ardent girlfriend, Maria (Anna Bamford).  Add on, ex-KGB's Osip (Andrew Buchanan), Alexei (Martin Jacobs) and his spoiled son, Kirill (Eamon Farren), and Yegor (David Downer) and his student son, Dimitri (Brendon McClelland).

The Present
By Andrew Upton from Anton Chekhov's Platonov
Sydney Theatre Company
Directed: John Crowley
Previews: Dec. 17, 2016.  Opening: Jan. 8, 2017. Closing: Mar. 19, 2017.
Barrymore Theater
243 W. 47th St. NYC
Running time: Three hours.  One intermission
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
January 2017

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