Moscow’s Sovremennik Theater Company pays a return visit to Broadway, proving, among other things, that last year’s raves were no fluke. The company’s affecting production of Chekhov’s masterpiece “The Cherry Orchard,” if not quite as startling as 1996’s “Three Sisters,” is more accessible than anything Russian since Stolichnaya vodka.
Headsets provide the English translation, but it’s the cast that really puts the emotions across in this limited-run engagement (through Nov. 9) at the Martin Beck Theater. Headed by Marina Neyolova, in a beautiful performance as the flat-broke Russian aristocrat watching helplessly as her way of life disappears forever, the Sovremennik company seems at once contemporary and classic. Despite an occasional staginess (and hit-and-miss attempts at physical comedy), director Galina Volchek encourages a straightforward approach that brings these familiar characters to life.
On a gray-toned set well below the Broadway budget standard (flat, painted trees loom over a few sticks of parlor furniture), the emphasis of the production falls squarely on the performances, and, with only minor exceptions, the ensemble is up to the task. Volchek’s staging avoids both villains (even the arriviste landowner is sympathetic) and melodrama, instead highlighting the play’s fin de siecle poignancy.
Returning to her familial estate (the title’s orchard) after years of lavish spending in France, the aging, bankrupt Ranevskaya (Neyolova) can do nothing but watch as the beloved land slips through her fingers. No one, least of all Ranevskaya’s well-bred but rather foolish brother Gayev (Igor Kvasha), can stop the inexorable loss, and by play’s end the estate is auctioned off to the nouveau riche Lopakhin (Sergei Garmash), whose father was a serf on the estate.
The production draws its power from the director’s careful depiction of the cultural and the personal, fully capturing Chekhov’s genius at demonstrating how one affects the other. The loss of her estate — in essence the loss of her personal history — is made clear in the alternately numbed and panicked eyes of the grieving Ranevskaya, yet the character’s diminishing place in Russian society is inescapable. Likewise, Lopakhin, often portrayed as an embittered ogre out to wreak havoc on his betters, is seen here as a man excited by his newfound status but painfully aware of its cost to others. He, like the fading gentry, is caught up in the sweep of history.
Both Neyolova and Garmash find the intricacies of their characters, as do Elena Yakovleva (as the heartbroken stepdaughter Varya) and Kvasha (as the charming, useless uncle). Maria Anikanova is lovely but a shade too shallow as the blithely unaware 17-year-old daughter Anya, and Darya Frolova as a lusty, sentimental chambermaid is given some comic bits that don’t really suit her or the production.
As with last year’s stagings, tech credits are spotty, the set bare-bones, the lighting harsh, and, truth be told, those headsets can be annoying after nearly three hours. Under such circumstances, it takes a production of real emotional force to blossom, and “The Cherry Orchard” does.