Actresses love to play Madame Ranevskaya, the enchanting idiot who dithers away the family estate in Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Film star Diane Lane (best remembered for “Unfaithful”) takes her shot in the Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway revival of Chekhov’s most beloved play — and proves to be engaging, if not remarkable. Not that anyone really has a chance to shine in director Simon Godwin’s shapeless production.
Physical setting is absolutely critical in this 1904 play, which is about nothing less than the demise of the proud Russian aristocracy and the ascendance of an emergent middle class at the turn of the last century. There are few signs of faded grandeur in Scott Pask’s almost barren set. Ranevskaya’s brother, Gaev (John Glover, always entertaining in the role of John Glover), is forced to deliver his piteous salute to a beloved furniture heirloom by directing it at a cheesy cabinet that belongs in the kitchen.
And while a large window dominates an outside wall, it doesn’t afford us so much as a glance at the magnificent orchard of cherry trees that symbolize all the beauty and grace of the obsolete upper class of a dying civilization.
A stronger directorial statement is made by the casting of African-American actors in the roles of the upstart serfs (rendered “slaves” in this translation by “The Humans” Tony winner Stephen Karam) who have ascended to the new moneyed classes. But not even reliable actors like Chuck Cooper (as a landowner), Harold Perrineau (as the merchant prince, Lopakhin) and Kyle Beltran (as the student, Trofimov) bring any noticeable insights into their roles.
To be sure, some performers hold fast to their ground. Celia Keenan-Bolger (“The Glass Menagerie”) is quietly tragic as Varya, who has been running the floundering family estate in Ranevskaya’s absence. As the entertaining Charlotta, Tina Benko brings some fun into the dreary household, which is also enlivened by the spirit that Susannah Flood brings to that perky maid, Dunyasha.
Joel Grey, as the loyal old servant Firs, is in a class of his own. Ignored and eventually forgotten by the children to whom he’s devoted his life, he stands in the margins, even now, eager to offer his unwanted services — a proud, never pitiful, figure, in Grey’s quietly moving performance.
“The Cherry Orchard” normally brings tears and laughter to the coldest of hearts. But there is surprisingly little emotion stirred by this production — except, perhaps, in the last scene, when Donald Holder’s finely tuned lighting grants old Firs the comfort of darkness.