Where is the worst possible place to be in the theater? About twenty minutes ahead of the action. That, alas, is where audiences for “Longing” find themselves. Anyone attracted to successful novelist William Boyd’s adaptation of two Chekhov short stories is probably conversant with the dramatist’s celebrated plays, so this plot of debt forcing the sale of a country estate, horror at the rise of the nouveau riche and, chiefly, last-minute declarations of unspoken love is devoid of tension. Despite the elegance of production from director Nina Raine (the writer of Off Broadway hit “Tribes”), the effect is Chekhov (s)light.
There are no cherry trees, but in case audiences are in doubt, designer Lizzie Clachan edges the stage with towering silver birches replete with fading leaves overhanging an impressively realistic summer house. Awaiting the arrival of their friend and lawyer Kolia (Iain Glen), who might help them save the estate, are Tania (Natasha Little), who doesn’t have a head for the financial details, and her younger, attractive sister Natasha (nicely self-possessed Eve Ponsonby).
True, there isn’t a third sister but there is Tania’s best friend Varia (Tamsin Grieg), a doctor visiting from Moscow whose life is devoted to work. Yet the fact that in the opening scene she immediately stiffens at the mention of Kolia’s name signals she is the victim of unrequited love.
Adding to the deja-vu are the sisters’ hapless brother-in-law, Sergei (Alan Cox), in thrall to wealthy, self-made Dolzikhov (John Sessions), plus the latter’s shriekingly vulgar daughter Kleopatra (Catrin Stewart). Aquiver with acquisitiveness, she’s engaged to naive Misail (William Postlethwaite), who dreams of classlessness.
Boyd’s adaptation puts them through entanglements as the sisters fret about what will become of them since Sergei has frittered away the family fortune. Blind to his neverending folly, Sergei is brought to vivid life by Cox who, instead of playing his character’s denial and guilt, plays Sergei as a success story only occasionally brought low by circumstances not, he believes, of his own making.
His highly engaging texture is rarely present elsewhere. In most cases, however, this is the fault not of the actors but of the material. Instead of fresh, newly motivated characters, they’re stuck with thinner copies of Chekhov’s three-dimensional originals.
Chekhov is the greatest dramatist of the unspoken. He creates drama out of is what is unsaid, a trick countless other dramatists fail to pull off. In his stage debut, Boyd emulates the Russian master but lacks his unparalleled control of subtext.
There are genuine frissons when two of the characters risk everything and declare their love to a startled Kolia, but sensitively directed and played though these scenes are, they’re too predictable to achieve true emotional impact.
As illustrated by the well-received Gotham play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – soon to open a Broadway transfer – you can reinvent Chekhovian themes and characters to delicious effect. This more traditional and undeniably tender evening feels overly reverent and, in a town that regularly stages the originals, secondhand.
Hampstead Theater, London; 315 seats; £29 ($43) top
Sets and costumes, Lizzie Clachan; lighting, James Farncombe; sound, Gareth Fry; music, Patrick Neil Doyle; production stage manager, Robyn Hardy. Opened, reviewed March 7, 2013. Running time: 2 HOURS.
Varia – Tamsin Greig
Kolia – Iain Glen
Tania – Natasha Little
Natasha – Eve Ponsonby
Sergei– Alan Cox
Misail – William Postlethwaite
Kleopatra – Catrin Stewart
Dolzikhov – John Sessions
Radish – Tom Georgeson
Olga, Mrs Luganovitch – Mary Roscoe
With George Kemp, Dave Perry, Lauren Slater, Pippa Wildwood.