There are some wonderful light-hearted moments in “Ivanov,” Chekhov’s 1887 tragi-comedy about the self-dramatizing manner of Russian gentry living large on their country estates. But the title character doesn’t necessarily figure in these exchanges, and they don’t seem to register with Ethan Hawke, who seems hell-bent on playing this provincial Hamlet without a spark of humor. Aside from this curious indulgence, helmer Austin Pendleton’s production has the handsome look (of battered elegance) and elusive spirit (beautiful, but damned) of his prior Chekhovian outings for the CSC.
Set designer Santo Loquasto uses a few strong visual cues — the distressed facade of an imposing country manor furnished with a few heirloom pieces and overflowing shelves of dusty books — to define the precarious existence of an impoverished country gentleman living with a dying wife on a derelict estate. No wonder Ivanov, the young landowner played by Hawke, is depressed.
“The company of my wife is unbearable,” he complains of poor Anna Petrovna, a wraithlike beauty played by Joely Richardson (“Nip/Tuck”) with haunted eyes and an air of unearthly stillness.
Choosing the coward’s way, he makes his nightly escape to the nearby estate of his good friend, Lebedev, a rich and generous landowner played with puckish wit (and an enviable wardrobe) by Pendleton. Here he finds good food and drink, a rapt audience for his grievances and the adoration of Lebedev’s impressionable young daughter, Sasha, a darling but stupidly romantic girl in Juliet Rylance’s charming perf.
Ignoring the reservations of his stingy wife, Zinaida (the tiny but mighty Roberta Maxwell), Lebedev throws fabulous parties to entertain his neighboring landowners. Splendidly dressed in Marco Piemontese’s smart evening clothes and happily dancing to Ryan Rumery’s festive music, everyone has a great time at these soirees.
One of this production’s best scenes, in fact, takes place at such a gathering — a comic moment with Lebedev playing the genial host to fussy guests like Count Shabelsky (a mean-spirited old codger, in George Morfogen’s deliciously droll perf) and Mikhail Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald, big and brutish), the scheming manager of Ivanov’s estate. While feasting on vodka and canapes, these provincial epicures reverently recall meals of white mushrooms cooked with onions and bay leaves; breaded and roasted snipe; and pressed caviar prepared with a little olive oil and a slice of lemon.
Ivanov is too sunk in guilt and despair over the way he has mistreated his wife, squandered his patrimony, brought his estate to the brink of ruin and pretty much wasted his life to relate to the self-indulgent ways of his idle neighbors. But they’re all so terminally bored that his self-pitying rants provide distraction, as a kind of after-dinner entertainment.
Taking their morbid interest at face value, Hawke complies with a bombastic perf that starts high and ends in self-immolation. It’s such an externalized performance style that there’s no air for nuance or room for expansion. And while the star gets full marks for passion and commitment, he seems to be doing all he can to subdue his own charismatic appeal, robbing Ivanov of the innate charm and physical magnetism that make Ivanov so irresistible.