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A CurtainUp Review
The Cherry Orchard

Cherry Orchard at Atlantic Theatre
Larry Bryggman & Brooke Adams
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Part of my heart may have been willing to be transported to old Russia by way of the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of The Cherry Orchard, but I’m afraid that my head was easily turned to LA where I will soon be attending the Theater Historical Society conclave. It may be a misplaced analogy to compare the legacy of America’s now almost extinct opulent motion picture palaces that dotted the land in the first half of the 20th Century with the vast estate in Anton Chekhov’s (arguably) greatest play.

As a member of THS, who is looking forward to the five-day conclave in Los Angeles next week, I have come to understand how and why those huge and extravagant "presentation houses" (many having between 2,000 and 4,000 seats and required a permanent staff of between one hundred and two hundred) became the victims of cultural and economic changes, as much as I understand the fate of the lavish home and wasteful household of Madame Ranevskaya. Like all great plays with universal themes, The Cherry Orchard finds a way to communicate to us, sometimes in a very personal way. Yes, I am sad when a grand and elegant theater is razed for a shopping mall or a parking garage, but letting go of the old to prepare for the new is often the only way to survive.

Unlike the atmospherics in those palatial theaters, you won’t see any lavish decorative excess or even a hint of cherry trees in blossom in Scott Zigler’s staging of The Cherry Orchard. What we see through the modestly intended décor provided by designers Scott Pask & Orit Jacoby Carroll is an estate that offers little substantive influence or inspiration, and is unfortunately no more or less evocative or compelling than its inhabitants.

Nitpickers and purists are more likely to be dismayed rather than pleased with this rather listless production that boasts a new and uncut adaptation by Tom Donaghy. According to notes by dramaturg Christian Parker, Donaghy has presumably made a heroic effort to make Russian aristocracy breathe with new vitality and life, speed up the text, affect a lightness of tone that was missing in the original Stanislavsky-directed production (and presumably too many subsequent productions), and also to restore Chekhov’s comic intentions. Far be it from me (with no knowledge of Russian at all) to suggest that Donaghy’s version may be less or more informed than those by Ann Dunningham (1964) Robert Brustein (1992) Paul Schmidt (1997) and Emily Mann (2000). However, what I saw didn’t come close to achieving the above stated intentions.

Unless one is completely willing to forego and forget what is understandably Russian in sentiment and style, there is also little to commend in Zigler’s uncharacteristically messy staging. It is hard to fathom how a company of actors, most of whom have distinguished credits, seem to be having such a hard time connecting with the simple honesty, humor and hubris of this disintegrating world.

One wishes that Brooke Adams could preside over this play as assuredly as her character Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya does over her household. As the aristocratic matriarch who is unwilling to be either practical or prepare for the inevitable, Adams seems to be disappearing with the same speed as her universe, but sadly without the grand elegance and eloquence that could make her character both pathetic and poignant. However irksome it may be to watch Ranevskaya respond so recklessly in the face of disaster, it would have been nice if we could respond sympathetically to a woman as oblivious as she is condescending to those around her.

Perhaps it is not a prerequisite that Ranevskaya be charming enough to fool herself as well as those in her charge, even as she tosses money like so many cherry blossoms on her estate. But in Adams’ only fitfully interesting portrayal, we also never see a woman whose life is framed by romantic delusions. Refusing to allow her estate to be turned into a summer colony and unable to see that her extravagances are destroying her family, she proclaims and reaffirms her aristocracy. In her favor, Adams doesn’t stoop to grandiose blandishments and flurries that could make Ranevskaya simply wearisome. She instead, relies on the forced smiles and half-hearted regrets of a wasteful life to act as her reflection of a woman as useless as her cherry orchard.

Zigler, a founding member and past Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theater Company who's best known for his staging of the word-propelled plays of David Mamet, brings a surprisingly flat, dull, and minimally contemporary, edge to the proceedings by having the supporting reflect none too subtly the more abrasive nature of a new society and changing times. This, of course, might be Chekhov’s intention. Despite the loose structure of the play, Zigler doesn’t seem to have guided the actors into creating flesh and blood people who painstakingly attempt to live in two worlds. He simply doesn’t make the play fun, unless you think that watching actors muttering under their breath while others are talking is amusing. Laura Breckenridge, who was memorable in the role of Sal in The Moonlight Room (CurtainUp's Review), plays Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter. She alone radiates the kind of effusive charm and that elusive inner life that we look for in a play by Chekhov. Even though the whole family is in a precarious situation, they should appear as nutty and delightful a parade of eccentrics as can be found in traditional farce. Larry Bryggman, of course, can do no wrong and appears quite dapper as Gayev, Ranevskaya’s slightly balmy brother whose endless speechifying is done with a well-bred instinct to amuse and to survive with elegance and dignity.

Although she is required to be almost perpetually angry, Diana Ruppe, as Varya, Ranevskaya’s adopted and romantically frustrated daughter doesn’t quite make the crossover to comical coquettishness in her scenes with Isiah Whitlock, Jr., as the ex-serf Lopakhin who now owns the property and Varya’s heart. Scott Foley affects the obligatory fidgets and awkward deportment of Trofimof, the forever-the-student-prophet who discovers the significance of life and proceeds to bore with his lectures. Erin Gann, as the young butler, seemed merely bored out of his mind with the futile flirtations of Peper Binkley, as the maid Dunyasha. Todd Weeks, as the bookkeeper Yepikhodov and Peter Maloney, often rise above the general torpor, at least in search of comedy.

Alvin Epstein, who has been acting since 1945, and has had a distinguished career in over 150 productions on and off-Broadway, plays Firs, the 87 year-old valet. To suggest at this stage in his career that he doesn’t have to either mug or chew the scenery anymore is moot. He obviously can and does. Mary McCann apparently has no idea what to make of her role as Charlotte, the children’s governess. Perhaps I am spoiled by having seen the amazing Linda Hunt play Charlotte (opposite Olympia Dukakis’ magnetic Ranevskaya). Even through the artistry of a magic act (although poorly done in this instance), Charlotta acts as a beacon by which we can see the love and the closeness as well as the futility this family share. You won’t find this important dimension in McCann’s less than zero performance. And despite the rare opportunity to see an often excised scene between Firs and Charlotta (although poorly acted in this instance; am I repeating myself?), this Cherry Orchard falls victim not to canny business men but to well-meaning artists.

Editor's Note: CurtainUp has reviewed quite a few Cherry Orchard productions. For links to these as well as more about Chekhov and his other plays,, see our Chekhov Backgrounder

By Anton Chekhov, adapted by Tom Donaghy
Directed by Scott Zigler
Cast: Brooke Adams, Pepper Binkley, Laura Breckenridge, Larry Bryggman, Dan Domingues, Alvin Epstein, Scott Foley, Erin Gann, Peter Maloney, Mary McCann, Diana Ruppe, Todd Weeks, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Set Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Howard Werner
Sound Design & Original Music: Fitz Patton.
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th St (8/9 Avenues) 212/239-6200
From From 5/25/05 to 7/03/05; opening 6/15/05
Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 & 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Tickets: $50.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on June 16th performance
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