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The Cherry Orchard

Although the star-studded cast of "The Cherry Orchard" gives the project a strong dose of sex appeal, the virtue of this production has more to do with Belgrader's decision to present the play as the comedy of manners that Chekhov always insisted it was.

With:
Lopakhin - John Turturro
Dunyasha - Elisabeth Waterston
Epikhodov - Michael Urie
Anya - Katherine Waterston
Ranevskaya - Dianne Wiest
Varya - Juliet Rylance
Gaev - Daniel Davis
Charlotta - Roberta Maxwell
Fiers - Alvin Epstein
Trofimov - Josh Hamilton

CSC’s Chekhov Initiative has had its ups and downs since its launch in 2008. But there are no flies whatsoever on Romanian helmer Andrei Belgrader’s stunning production of “The Cherry Orchard.” Although the star-studded cast anchored by Dianne Wiest (Ranevskaya) and John Turturro (Lopakhin) gives the project a strong dose of sex appeal, the virtue of this production has more to do with Belgrader’s decision to present the play as the comedy of manners that Chekhov always insisted it was.

Santo Loquasto’s charming nursery setting, its wee furniture painted in unblemished white, is a persuasive indication that the people who live on this country estate have never grown up. Madame Ranevskaya (Dianne Wiest), the absent landowner who has returned from abroad after five years, is the biggest baby of them all. Costumed (by Marco Piemontese) in something long and white and delicate as a christening gown, the charismatic Wiest floats onstage with the winsome smile and languid manner of a shameless heartbreaker.

As a result of years of neglect, the family estate has been put up for auction. But the infantile Ranevskaya is such a narcissist, and so willfully detached from worldly matters, she’s incapable of making any kind of intelligent business decision about the property.

This drives Lopakhin (John Turturro), her rich, business-savvy neighbor, into a state of wild (and wildly funny) frustration. Unlike some of the dreamers in this household, Lopakhin has no illusions about who he is — and who he isn’t. Turturro is wonderfully nonchalant in that painful moment when Lopakhin acknowledges that he is, and will always be, the peasant son of his peasant father. The thesp is more passionate and intensely riveting after Lopakhin has bought the cherry orchard and realizes that, in claiming his heart’s desire, he has also destroyed it.

But Lopakhin is wrong about one thing. It isn’t good breeding that keeps Ranevskaya and everything she represents out of his rough peasant grasp. It’s the sense of ironic fatalism that makes the upper classes so romantic, so tragic — and so damned funny.

John Christopher Jones’ modernized (but not anachronistic) translation is drolly amusing, and under Belgrader’s buoyant direction, everyone in the ensemble is free to explore the absurdity of their characters.

Wiest’s delighted laughter is heard often, prompted by those moments when Ranevskaya is startled by someone’s outrageous behavior — often, her own. Roberta Maxwell’s cunning perf makes a genuine wit of Charlotta, the querulous German governess more often played as a fussy old biddy. Even Trofimov, the earnest young radical played by Josh Hamilton, seems to know when his political rants make him look ridiculous.

This is not to say that Belgrader has drained the characters of their tragic humanity. The lovelorn Varya (Juliet Rylance, full of fury) is still miserably unhappy. Young Anya (Katherine Waterston, in another striking turn) is still sadly in need of parental love and direction. Ranevskaya’s brother Gaev (a sensitive reading from Daniel Davis) is still a pathetic old soul. And Fiers (in an instantly memorable perf by Alvin Epstein) will still break your heart.

But for all their losses, this household doesn’t become mired in the lugubrious depths of tragedy that Chekhovian productions are prone to. They may be crying inside, but in this production, their lamentations are drowned out by the sound of laughter.

But Lopakhin is wrong about one thing. It isn’t good breeding that keeps Ranevskaya and everything she represents out of his rough peasant grasp. It’s the sense of ironic fatalism that makes the upper classes so romantic, so tragic — and so damned funny.

John Christopher Jones’ modernized (but not anachronistic) translation is drolly amusing, and under Belgrader’s buoyant direction, everyone in the ensemble is free to explore the absurdity of their characters.

Wiest’s delighted laughter is heard often, prompted by those moments when Ranevskaya is startled by someone’s outrageous behavior — often, her own. Roberta Maxwell’s cunning perf makes a genuine wit of Charlotta, the querulous German governess more often played as a fussy old biddy. Even Trofimov, the earnest young radical played by Josh Hamilton, seems to know when his political rants make him look ridiculous.

This is not to say that Belgrader has drained the characters of their tragic humanity. The lovelorn Varya (Juliet Rylance, full of fury) is still miserably unhappy. Young Anya (Katherine Waterston, in another striking turn) is still sadly in need of parental love and direction. Ranevskaya’s brother Gaev (a sensitive reading from Daniel Davis) is still a pathetic old soul. And Fiers (in an instantly memorable perf by Alvin Epstein) will still break your heart.

But for all their losses, this household doesn’t become mired in the lugubrious depths of tragedy that Chekhovian productions are prone to. They may be crying inside, but in this production, their lamentations are drowned out by the sound of laughter.

Popular on Variety

The Cherry Orchard

Classic Stage Company

Production: A Classic Stage Company presentation of a play in two acts by Anton Chekhov, in a translation by John Christopher Jones. Directed by Andrei Belgrader. Choreographed by Orlando Pabotoy.

Creative: Sets, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Marco Piemontese; lighting, James F. Ingalls; original music and sound, Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Joanne E. McInerney. Opened Dec. 4, 2011. Reviewed Nov. 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Lopakhin - John Turturro
Dunyasha - Elisabeth Waterston
Epikhodov - Michael Urie
Anya - Katherine Waterston
Ranevskaya - Dianne Wiest
Varya - Juliet Rylance
Gaev - Daniel Davis
Charlotta - Roberta Maxwell
Fiers - Alvin Epstein
Trofimov - Josh Hamilton
With: Ken Cheeseman, Slater Holmgren, Michael Wieser, Ben Diskant.

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