The New Yorker's great theater critic, John Lahr, hasn't been writing enough. Then on Dec. 12 the magazine doesn't put the compressed grace of his review of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" on line, and further goes on in the truncated "abstract" it does post to mangle Lahr's dramatic wisdom.
It's criminal! But no matter — here's the gist.
Lahr begins with the obliviousness of the central character [played by Dianne Wiest, in the image]
When a character tells Madame Ranevskaya (the vulnerable and resolate Dianne Wiest), who is as sensationally blind to her predicament as she is to herself, that he saw "a very funny show at the theater last night,": she snaps…"People shouldn't be going to plays. They should be looking at themselves. Lives are so gray…gray, and you talk about things that don't matter."
This, of course, is a perfect description of the play we're watching.
Which raises the question — what are we watching?
…as the actors enter Santo Losquano's elegant circular arena, where canvas is spread on the floor as in a circus ring, spotlights isolate a toy train, a hobbyhorse, and a minaiature table and chairs. Madame Ranevskaya and her entourage recall their former bliss on their soon-to-be-lost estate ("Happiness and I would wake up together," she says) while sitting on the miniature furniture, like giants in a child's universe.
Chekhov began the play in a nursery for a reason: the adults before us are unwilling to take responsibility for the lives they are lamenting; they are infantile and unformed. "I feel young. As a child," Charlotta (Roberta Maxwell), the governess, says, adding, "Where I'm from, who I am — not a clue." Cluelessness is the essence of Chekhov's comedy.
What are these alleged grown-ups missing? Something does matter…the issue of the enormous natural estate that no longer can support these feckless nobles and their serfs must be faced.
The cherry orchard must be saved — or not.
"The Cherry Orchard"…was Chekhov's last and most Expressionistic play. (Less than six months after its debut, in January 1904, he died, of tuberculosis, at the age of forty-four.) Chekhov insisted to the play's first director and star, Konstantin Stanislavsky, that "The Cherry Orchard" was "not a drama, but a comedy, in places even a farce."
In other words, this will be in part about the question of the fate of the orchard — which could easily turn melodramatic — but it will also be about the larger question, which is us, our foolishness.
The playwright will examine us, like the doctor he was, "interrogate" us, as the academic phrase goes, and mock us at times. It's not just an environmental question, but an existential one.
What will be our relationship with our land, our property, and, ultimately, our planet?
The pushy but compassionate Lopakhin (John Turturro), who grew up on the estate as a peasant and is now himself a landowner, has a sound suggestion: in order to liquidate their debts and keep their property, which otherwise will be auctioned off, Madame Ranevskaya and Gayev must cut down their enormous cherry orchard, divide up the land, and tease it out in small parcels, on which summer cottages can be built. "It's all just so vulgar," Madame Ranevskaya says.
After days of coaxing the family to take action, Lopakhin implores Gayev, "Tell me what you want me to do!" "About what?" Gayev says. He and his sister cannot see what's right under their noses.
Lopakhin, who represents the new economic order, on the other hand, recognizes an opportunity and, finally, buys the estate himself. (Turturro does a fine, high-stepping boot-tapping cakewalk around the stage in celebration of this social and financial coup.)
What could go wrong for this winner?
Lopakhin, however, is blinkered in matters of the heart. In a superb, devastating scene with Madame Ranveskaya's daughter Varya (the excellent Juliet Rylance), who wants to marry him, Lopakhin lets love pass him by.
It's a moment out of John Cage. The most devastating line in the play is the one not spoken.
The nobility cannot see one "thing that matters;" the developer cannot see another.