When you’re going to see Cate Blanchett play Chekhov, you probably don’t expect to see her pour a bottle of vodka over her head and gyrate strenuously to the 1990s dance hit “What Is Love.” But that is what happens during the fraught second act of The Present, a hard-edged, often crude adaptation of Chekhov’s early play Platonov by Blanchett’s husband Andrew Upton that first played down in Sydney and has now moved to Broadway.
Platonov was never performed during Chekhov’s lifetime (it was found in his papers after his death). Running for five hours or so if produced uncut, this is a play that served as an experiment and rough draft for many of the masterpieces he wrote later on. There is some very fine writing in Platonov and that special wistful, semi-comic mood that was entirely Chekhov’s own state of melancholy grace, but it isn’t done too often in any form.
The Present runs for three hours and comes to revolve around two rather monstrously greedy characters: Anna (Blanchett), a widowed former trophy wife who is giving a party for her fortieth birthday, and Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh), a dissatisfied and punkish schoolteacher who violently covets several different women at the party while also remaining both passive and almost hysterically mortified at his station in life.
The real weakness in this production lies in the meandering first act, where many characters are introduced all at once and the actors roam around the stage in a chaotic and disconnected way. The relationships between these various characters with Russian names does not become even remotely clear until around the third act, unfortunately, and by that time it is difficult to either care about their love problems or laugh at their extreme selfishness.
The Present could be improved if the first act was drastically cut and if the production was moved to a smaller space Off-Broadway; that way both the actors and the audience would be forced into the spirit of intimacy that is necessary for this difficult but rewarding piece of material. As it is, The Present is on Broadway because Blanchett is one of the few star names who can basically write her own ticket. She is at her best here when she is focused on one-on-one scenes with Roxburgh and at her busy, flashy worst in the first act when she is trying to interact with many different people and indulging in overdone physical gestures to indicate restlessness.
Chekhov is supposed to have said that you must not put a rifle on the stage in the first act if it isn’t going to go off in the third, but in The Present we have Blanchett firing a rifle twice (nearly deafeningly) in the second act and then more gunfire in the fourth and last act, and this feels like overkill.
The Present is set in Russia in the 1990s, but none of the characters looks or sounds remotely Russian. All of the performers here speak in their own Australian accents, and so Blanchett’s Anna doesn’t seem like a Russian gold-digger in autumn but like a bourgeois Australian giving a barbecue.
The contrast between Chekhov’s rarified observations on men and women and love and work and Upton’s interpolated modern slang phrases is awkward, to say the least, but Blanchett and Roxburgh work like demons trying to make Anna and Mikhail into credibly multi-dimensional people. The Present is an overlong mess, but those who are going to see it so they can watch Blanchett act up a storm will not be disappointed.
Photo by Joan Marcus