“The Present” Is Painfully Appropriate for Our Present

By Kamila Daurenova, Contributing Writer

Vodka, fireworks and existential crises; every ingredient necessary for a Russian birthday party can be found in Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh’s Broadway debut “The Present.” Revamped by Andrew Upton for The Sydney Theatre Company, the play is based on Anton Chekhov’s first and lesser-known “Platonov,” never finished and only discovered 16 years after his death. Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna, a trophy-wife-turned-widow that brings together a group of old friends for a weekend celebration of her 40th birthday. As the party goes on, 20 years of denial, unresolved relationships, and regret come to the surface.

All the turmoil is somehow related to the witty and sardonic Mikhail Platonov (think Chandler Bing but as a depressed Russian alcoholic). Anna Petrovna is only one of the three women who realize they are in love with him, along with her stepson’s wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Maria (Anna Bamford), a college student that is dating Platonov’s best friend.

Blanchett and Roxburgh worked together previously on Chekhov’s better-known “Uncle Vanya.” Their stellar performances and chemistry make it clear why the duo was brought back for this production. While Roxburgh’s character is inconsistent and indecisive, he displays such vulnerability that it is impossible not to empathize with him in the shocking turn of the last scene — despite all of his immoral actions. Blanchett transitions seamlessly and authentically from agonizing boredom to an emotional breakdown of wanting to detonate herself and her friends in her old country home as “part of the fireworks.” Grinding on a 70-year old man and his 20-year-old son to “What is Love?” is also thrown into Blanchett’s repertoire for good measure.

The cast of 13 includes the original Australian company, with standout performances from Chris Ryan and Toby Schmitz playing Platonov’s well-meaning yet intellectually inferior best friends. Ryan’s portrayal of Anna’s 38-year-old stepson Sergei is especially hilarious; he sits in her lap and refers to her as “mammon.” His attempts to get his unfaithful wife back in the second half of the play reach a level of pitiful that somehow transcends the realm of cringing and second hand embarrassment and goes into comedic gold.

Set and costume designer Alice Babidge’s creations are interesting and aesthetically pleasing. They range from the more expected naturalistic sets of the first, second and fourth acts to a surreal deviation in act three as Platonov is approached by varying characters in the smoking ruins of the demolished folly.

Chekhov reputation for existential boredom seem to be inescapable, and director John Crowley’s apparent motivation is crystal-clear with the first one and a half acts; to give the audience a taste of the mind-numbing dreariness faced by the characters. This certainly works, as the urge to reach for a phone or walk out become almost unbearable as the title character drones on about the plot of a movie he once saw and can’t fully remember. While this boredom is crucial to the plot and creates a great canvas for the following climactic revelations, it has a way of seeping back into further scenes that are intended to be more engaging. It’s a challenge that clearly remains so for the cast and crew.

Aside from the unrivalled performance of the cast, what makes the play great is Upton’s decision to shift the setting to 1990’s Russia; a period when the oligarchs rose to power at the end of the Soviet era. The characters are put into a time of overwhelming disparity between the rich and the poor when people felt powerless in the face of the government; making the nineteenth-century Russian play surprisingly relevant in the first few months of a new presidency.

“The Present” will be playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at 243 West 47 St through March 19.

Email Karina Daurenova at theater@nyunews.com.

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