Mindful that the road to damnation is paved with good intentions, let it be noted that the Atlantic Theater Company mounted this misbegotten production of Chekhov’s final masterpiece, “The Cherry Orchard,” with the purest of motives. Working from a new, stripped-down adaptation by Tom Donaghy, helmer Scott Zigler and dramaturg Christian Parker intended to purge the text of the naturalistic gravitas imposed by Stanislavsky (and those melancholy poetic flourishes added by translators like Constance Garnett) and restore the play’s tone of antic comedy. But the honor of the enterprise is pretty much compromised by the giddy sitcom sensibility that comes through here.
The precarious balancing act of comedy and pathos that makes Chekhovian drama unique is immediately upset when characters come spilling onto the stage like New Year’s Eve revelers looking to crash one last party before midnight. Although family, friends and servants of Mme. Ranevskaya (Brooke Adams) are all properly excited by that flighty landowner’s long overdue return to her country estate, their untempered outburst of character tics has the demented air of a TV comedy’s season finale.
The more exaggerated these manifestations of comic desperation — the boorishness of Lopakhin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), clumsiness of Yepikhodov (Todd Weeks) and girlish flutters of maid Dunyasha (Pepper Binkley) — the less poignant the effect. And when the beloved lady of the manor arrives with her entourage, darned if the manic mood doesn’t strike them, too.
Stage and film thesp Adams has an air of bruised refinement and faded elegance that would seem to make her a natural to play Ranevskaya. (Theresa Squire dresses her like a fine piece of china.) But while those luminous eyes of hers do draw us to this flighty creature, the strain of having to bubble over with comic mirth reduces her to the mindless head-bobbing of an unstrung puppet.
Some thesps do manage to recover from their opening circus turns to redeem themselves in quieter two-hander scenes. Young lovers Pyotr (Scott Foley) and Anya (Laura Breckenridge) find their lyrical voices once they steal away from their elders. And Larry Bryggman finds his own sympathetic approach to Ranevskaya’s brother Gayev by making this foolish philosopher too moody to join in the forced frivolity around him.
But only the ever-astonishing Alvin Epstein — whose masterful performance as the ancient family retainer Firs marks this thesp’s 60th year on the stage — succeeds completely in playing his part in a manner transcending any misguided directorial imperative. His Firs is at once wise, foolish, sad and, yes, funny — but in a way that dignifies the old man’s position in this dying household and makes the aud flinch from the sound of the axes cutting down his world.
Whenever Firs is around, otherwise flailing thesps seem to gravitate to him for ballast. But the alienating effect of Zigler’s staging — which runs to parades, processionals and other curiosities of scene deconstruction — creates unbridgeable distances among these old friends.
Even the tech package seems to keeps characters from going into emotional huddles over the fate of the estate that symbolizes their shared history. While set pieces are individually handsome, the tall paneled screens (in cucumber-cool green), brocade fabrics, ballroom chandelier and other elements in the formal design by Scott Pask and Orit Jacoby Carroll are too classically cool and austere for the comfortably shabby provincial home that stands for old Russia.
Like the soft pastel mural of the cherry orchard, even the sound of the axes chopping down trees as the family takes its leave seems too delicate and remote to resonate.
For all the laughter Zigler has found in this new adaptation, he doesn’t seem to find much at all in the way of tears.