The Cherry Orchard is in bloom again—for the 16th time on Broadway—again briefly brightening the growing gloom of a doomed Russian aristocracy. After five years of the Parisian high-life, Mme. Ranevskaya has returned to the folding family fold, hoping to save her heavily mortgaged estate from the greedy clutches of the rising middle class and rescue the orchard—her pride and joy—from the chopping block.
No such luck, of course. In his last play, written in 1904, Anton Chekhov depicted a civilization going, going, gone with the wind, and he called this chaotic upheaval a comedy about change, which is why, in this election year, Roundabout Theatre Company saw fit to trot out a revival of it October 16 at its American Airlines Theatre.
Calling the shots here are Simon Godwin, the 41-year-old associate director at the National Theatre, who just did a much-lauded revival of Man and Superman with Ralph Fiennes, and adapter Stephen Karam, fresh from his Best Play Tony win for The Humans. This is Godwin’s Broadway debut, but he takes it in big, bold steps.
•How about that big masquerade party/magic act/musical chairs frolic after intermission . . . ? “Well,” Simon sez, “Chekhov himself always ended Act Three having a party, but he put it behind closed doors. He put a wall up so you never really saw it. I felt it’s time to tear down the wall and create a sense of the tarantella in A Doll’s House when Nora dances—a feeling of being anarchic, an exhilarating sense of danger—but we also needed something that didn’t seem choreographed. The idea of musical chairs, I felt, was a game they would have all known as a family.”
•And the shrunken furniture that set designer Scott Pask created for the nursery at the beginning . . .? “Mme. Ranevskaya is returning to the scene of her childhood,” says Godwin.
•And Michael Krass’ epoch-leaping costumes that seem to evolve through the play, from turn-of-the-century to contemporary . . . ? “I think we were trying to find ways of saying that they were living in a kind of a dream, a fantasy,” Godwin adds. “And then when reality comes, we’re suddenly in the same reality they are. There were no more illusions. There is no more pretense. They’re like you and I on the streets. We’re all coping with change, and I really wanted to make that connection strong and clear.”
The cast spiffily duded up for the opening-night party nearby at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill where the special drink du jour was a Cherry Blossom (Svedka raspberry vodka, club soda, simple syrup, grenadine and a maraschino cherry). It was sweet.
But first they had to meet the press lined up in the long lobby of the theatre after the two-and-a-half-hour play had run its course. The Ranevskaya contingent was especially gorgeously gowned—Madame (Diane Lane), her daughter (Tavi Gevinson), her adopted daughter (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and even the governess (Tina Benko).
Gevinson wore Gucci, Keenan-Bolger wore Alice + Olivia, Benko wasn’t sure who she was wearing (“What I will say is it’s from The New York Look, which is my go-to place by Lincoln Center, and it’s going out of business. I told the owner I would say, ‘I get all my opening-night dresses at The New York Look.’”). Nicely, Lane delivered the new news when the question came up: “You’re not allowed to ask me that anymore, apparently,” she said tentatively, then checked with her publicist who nodded right.
Lane’s performance is both a Broadway comeback and a post-puberty Broadway debut. It’s not that her aristocratic nose has a place among the Ranevskayas. She is truly to the manor born, having been a multi-tasking extra as a child in Andrei Serban’s legendary 1977 production of The Cherry Orchard at the Vivian Beaumont.
Her entrance into the nursery here as Mme. Ranevskaya is so elegantly imperious that you might think she was channeling Irene Worth’s moves from 39 years ago.
“Well, she certainly set the bar,” Lane admits, “and it is in the DOS level of my hard drive. That kind of grace, when you see it, is a physical truth that you can’t fake.”
She enjoys playing the character a lot, she said. “I like that she doesn’t have shame about her regrets and losses just because she’s wealthy. Some people feel wealthy people—or people who were born into wealth, whether they still have any or not—are not allowed to have pain, have regrets, have difficult lessons in life. They’re either supposed to be buffoons or magnates. What about the humanity in between?”
With four decades of film and television under her belt, Lane has in recent years started drifting back to her theatrical roots. “It’s such a joy to be in a family again. I haven’t felt this way since—I guess I can’t help going back to the way I felt when I was doing the same play when I was a baby. When I come out and say, ‘The nursery!’ I’m, like, ‘Yeah, and I did sleep in the nursery, and I did wake up in the nursery of this play because I used to be the kid falling asleep in the costume room.’ I was tired. I had to go to school. The cast had Mondays off. I had tests on Mondays. I had to get up at 7 AM and go to school. On two-show days, I had to miss school and then make up days. It was constantly exhausting to be doing both. People don’t think about that.”
Lane is not the only cast member in this production to have grown up in The Cherry Orchard. John Glover, who plays her brother Gaev, is a veteran of two versions, one at Williamstown directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos in 1979 and another at the McCarter directed by Emily Mann in 2000, which was his first time out as Gaev.
“The character didn’t come out the same,” he hastened to add. “I have a whole different director who is asking for something else, so I have completely different relationships with the characters I come in contact with in this production.
“Simon Godwin is a genius, I think. He wanted to make it about today, and I think we’ve succeeded in doing that. The racial casting was incredibly well-thought out. It helps tell a story that I think we can all relate to today big time, what with what’s happening in the country right now, especially coming down to this horrific election campaign that we’ve been going through for so many weeks and months. I think that there’s an awful lot to think about because of the way this Cherry Orchard is played.”
Glover also happened to see the Serban version and remembers it fondly. “I had just worked with Meryl Streep in Julia. It was our first movie. (She’s done well.) After that film, she went back to do The Cherry Orchard, so I went to see her in it. She played the chambermaid, Dunyasha. When her character has been dumped by Yasha, she made an acting choice and went for Epikhodov, who was Max Wright. They were all sitting in the living room waiting to leave, and she came on with a scarf and wrapped it around Epikhodov’s neck. She made the choice to go with him so she wouldn’t be alone. I remember that vividly. She was on top of it even then.”
Joel Grey, at 84, cuts a spry and poignant figure as the ancient manservant, Firs, who is forgotten and left behind in the empty manse by his self-absorbed employers. His closing moments in the play are on par with Dwight Marfield’s in the 1977 version.
“I think Firs is sort of the conscience of the piece, the caretaker of the estate,” Grey says. “I think of him as Chekhov himself, knowing how things are going to turn out.”
Chuck Cooper checks off his first Chekhov in the role of a blustery, neighboring landowner. “He’s a fun guy who is, I think, profoundly present for what’s happening.”
It has to be added that Cooper, who comes in the XL, works well with miniature furniture, plopping himself down on a baby chair with remarkable dexterity.
Tina Benko, as the governess Charlotta Ivanovna, contributes the evening’s magic. “We had a great gentleman named Paul Kiev come over from London and help me with the tricks,” she says. “I believe he did some of the magic in the Harry Potters.”
Benko has tucked her blonde locks under a wiry red wig—her idea. “I requested the wig and talked to Paul Huntley, our hair and wig designer, about it. I just felt she was a redhead, and it feels right. Paul is the best, an absolute legend. He styled the wig himself, and it’s everything I wanted it to be. I feel like Charlotta when I put it on.”
Lopakhin, the crafty wheeler-dealer who puts the aristocrats out to pasture and takes over their estate where his father and grandfather had worked as servants, is played by Harold Perrineau with considerable relish. “I like the guy,” the actor admits. “He’s in a really interesting place, having come from the bottom. In order to do that, it takes a certain kind of personality, and I rather admire his determination.”
He also admires the machinery of ensemble-playing. “Our director, Simon, created an amazing company of actors. He said at the beginning, ‘This is a play about family. Everyone is part of that family.’ The process of creating a family in just a few weeks has been really extraordinary. It’s not one of us doing the whole play. We’ve all this moving thing that’s bringing to life the world of this family. I’m really enjoying that.”
Mme. Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter (read: housekeeper and workhorse) brings out the rarely-seen fury in Celia Keenan-Bolger. “Varya’s trying to keep a lot of things together, and the way that manifests sometimes is with some pretty hard edges,” she explains. “Chekhov is hard. I think that I haven’t really connected, but, as we do it, she continues to reveal herself more and more, and I do really love her.”
The character comes as something of a surprise to her—“If you had told me as a musical theatre major at the University of Michigan that I would ever have been in a Chekhov play on Broadway, I would never have believed you.”—but a happy one.
Broadway is getting to be a habit with Tavi Gevinson. Anya is her third Main Stem role in a row in pretty rapid succession. “On the page, the character looks sort of thin,” she concedes, “but I think she’s really taking after her mother, learning denial and diversion and ways of laughing and staying happy so that you don’t just sink.”
If there were a Tony for valor above and beyond the duty, it would surely go to Quinn Mattfeld, who endures the indignant playing the masquerade-party dressed as a human-sized, Senator Claghorn type of chicken. “The costume does all the work for you,” he insists. “It’s a wonderful Chekhovian mix of really sad and kinda funny.
“It’s a challenge because I have to play a breakup scene while dressed like a chicken. Late in my career, I want to walk through a bookstore and see Acting Chekhov with me on the cover dressed in a chicken costume. That’s going to be my greatest hope.”
Check out photos from opening night below: