Up a Tree

Tom Donaghy’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” strips a brilliant gem

Money does not determine class. It does, however, determine who has the best stuff. More insidiously, money—and particularly, control over it—drives the direction of any culture. Yet for those who, in losing control of the economy, become the “old guard,” the dated ones; such transitions are especially painful.

As the middle class emerged in Russia at the end of the 19th century, Anton Chekhov was increasingly fascinated by the effect economic transformation was having on the old established structures—as name, title, rank and lineage lost their power as currency to the ruble and the kopeck.

What Chekhov, a decidedly “old guardist” himself, saw was the rise of vulgarity, or as it was called “poshlost,” an old Russian term loosely translated as blind and egotistical spiritual corruption. He returns to the topic again and again in his short fiction. Yet it is in his final play, “The Cherry Orchard,” that he writes what may be the obituary for the old class system, and he is not happy about it.

True to the Chekovian style, however, “The Cherry Orchard” is ostensibly a comedy, though it is a wry and bittersweet one about loss, denial and the inevitable changes time wreaks.

Obviously, this play should resonate in our blinged-out, Hummer/Escalade present day, in which celebrity riches and fame can be achieved through eating bugs and other tricks of self-abasement. In a world of million-dollar, one-room condos and careless manners, “The Cherry Orchard” should reflect the cultural tensions, frustrations and overwhelming sense of unease that afflicts much of society today amidst its often-incomprehensible change.

I say “should” because the production of the play in a new adaptation by Tom Donaghy now at the Atlantic Theater Company is one of the weakst productions of this piece ever to see the light of day in New York. The “modern language” adaptation is clumsy and lacking in precision, totally obscuring the divisions of class and economic station that Chekhov drew so clearly. So casual and contemporary is the language’s structure that it appears that Madame Ranevskaya’s precious estate and famous cherry orchards are about to be turned into Glengarry Glen Ross, the cheap housing development from David Mamet’s play. (Ironically both plays deal with the sale of real estate as a metaphor for spiritual erosion.) Donaghy’s amateurish work is grating on the ear and a disservice to fine literature.

The problems with the production are compounded by the absence of direction from Scott Zigler, allowing the actors to run unfettered through the messy text, with no apparent overarching vision whatsoever. The themes of the play are denial, the emotional chaos wrought by change and the tragedy of those who are left behind in a dying world. It’s grim, but lyrical, yet Zigler has managed to suck the poetry out of the piece, utterly abandons the ironic comedy and seems to scarcely have any idea of what is going on.

Even if undirected, however, the cast contributes its own set of problems. The performances are characterized by mugging and hyperactive superficiality that is, simply, offensive. In particular, the usually superb Larry Bryggman is totally wasted as a fading aristocrat. Given nothing to do, he does that well, but his character, Leonid, brother of Madame Ranevskaya, is supposed to be the bridge between the old world and the new. Yes, he’s lost, but he’s a lost nobleman not a confused Yorkshire Terrier, as he appears here.

Brooke Adams, as Madame Ravenskaya in what should be a plum role for a competent actress, flounders through the play clueless of what it’s about or what she’s doing, never having a single believable moment or making any connection to the character. She is fatuous rather than elegant and dim rather than in denial. Like Blanche DuBois, Madame Ravenskaya is at the brink of a world that is disappearing, and she cannot cope. Adams captures none of that.

“The Cherry Orchard” should be disquieting rather than dispiriting. We want to feel the world changing and feel the threat of eventual dislocation that will happen to all of us—the unvarying curse of time.

Neither Brooke Adams (right), as Madam Ravenskaya, and the usually fine Larry Bryggman, as her brother Leonid, manage to capture the anxieties and inability to cope of an aristocratic class facing extinction in Tom Donaghy’s adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard.”

photo: Carol Rosegg

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