Kevin Kline leads the formidable charge to pin down Chekhov's elusive problem play "Ivanov," but despite the efforts of teammates David Hare and Gerald Gutierrez, there is no clear victory.

Kevin Kline leads the formidable charge to pin down Chekhov’s elusive problem play “Ivanov,” but despite the efforts of teammates David Hare and Gerald Gutierrez, no clear victories are made.

Plagued with a passive central character and an unrelenting tone of self-pity, “Ivanov” was Chekhov’s first full-length play in 1889 and, today, among his most infrequently produced. Hare’s crisp, contemporary translation, Gutierrez’s comic direction and Kline’s flip, offhand approach to the title character struggle to bring some breeze to this melancholy work, ultimately to little advantage. “Ivanov” remains a tedious affair, doubly disappointing since it marks Kline’s return to the New York stage following his acclaimed perfs in the films “In & Out” and “The Ice Storm.”Chekhov’s insistence that his plays were meant to be comic is taken to heart in this production. Characters are broadly drawn, dialogue delivered with the punch of comic timing, and even the final suicide scene is, until the last few seconds, played nearly as farce. It’s a legitimate approach, even interesting, but the material supports the style only occasionally, stranding “Ivanov” in a Siberia between comedy and melodrama.

Kline plays a penniless Russian landowner tormented with guilt because he’s fallen out of love with wife Anna (Jayne Atkinson), who’s dying of tuberculosis. The fragile marriage (and Anna’s Jewishness) is a continual source of gossip among the couple’s circle of bored Russian gentry, a group that, among others, includes a self-righteous young doctor (Rob Campbell), a greedy, viperish society matron (Marian Seldes), her hapless, goodhearted husband (Max Wright) and their daughter (Hope Davis), a firebrand infatuated with the gloomy Ivanov.

With “Ivanov,” Chekhov had yet to perfect his repartee-as-plot technique, providing little momentum to the endless drawing-room chats that, however well performed here, still seem, well, endless. Gutierrez injects as much vitality as the text allows (perhaps even more so), at one point having a drawing-room guest demonstrate a rigorous exercise routine. The snipish gossip is rendered with snap, and Hare’s translation — a milquetoast husband at one point tells his shrewish wife to “drop dead” — is sharply modern.

The brisk style goes some way toward glossing over the play’s problems, and some of the secondary performers (particularly Seldes and Wright) hit their comic targets. But Kline, never better than when he’s doing light comedy, is adrift here, his quick-paced delivery lending the character neither gravitas nor comic lunacy. Ivanov’s suicide is likely to leave audiences as unmoved as it does the world-weary aristocrats.

As usual, Lincoln Center Theater has given this outing an attractive physical production, including John Lee Beatty’s earth-toned woodlands and well-appointed drawing room and Catherine Zuber’s pretty costumes. All dressed up, “Ivanov” still goes nowhere.

Ivanov

Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York; 1,101 seats; $55 top.

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of the play in two acts by Anton Chekhov, adapted by David Hare. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty. Costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, James F. Ingalls; original music, Robert Waldman; sound, Aural Fixation; stage manager, Frank Hartenstein. Artistic directors, Andre Bishop, Bernard Gersten. Opened Nov. 20, 1997. Reviewed Nov. 14; Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Kevin Kline (Ivanov), Tom McGowan (Borkin), Jayne Atkinson (Anna), Robert Foxworth (Count Shabyelski), Rob Campbell (Yevgeni Lvov), Marian Seldes (Zinaida Savishna), Judith Hawking (Marfusha Babakina), Lynn Cohen (Avdotya Nazarovna), Jeff Weiss (Kosykh), Max Wright (Pavel Lebedev), Hope Davis (Sasha), William Preston (Gavrila), Stuart Zamsky (Pyotr).
With: Joan Buddenhagen, Jane Cronin, John Michael Gilbert, Lawrence Nathanson, John Newton, Thomas Schall, Evan Thompson, Susan Wilder.
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