Director Sam Mendes, the modern master of gloom as doom as evidenced by his Broadway revival of Cabaret and his recent film Revolutionary Road, goes as often as not for the laughs; while Tom Stoppard, the peerless purveyor of hyper-intelligence, provides a highly contemporary, occasionally coarse translation, with only a few Stoppardian speeches (given to eternal student Trofimov, played by Ethan Hawke as if he's been magically transported directly from Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia). Sadly, neither of the above statements is meant as true praise.
Indeed, these two singular artists have failed to locate the deep melancholia at the heart of Chekhov's work, instead indulging in cheap laughs, easy sentiment, and the occasional unnecessary coup de theatre. They haven't completely misunderstood Chekhov, of course; the play's message -- that time has passed from the old to the new as the class system in turn-of-the-century Russia becomes extinct -- comes through very loud and clear. But the missed connections for love and understanding between and among its characters too often fade into the background when they need to come to the foreground.
The primary exception involves the peasant-turned-wealthy landowner Lopakhin, brilliantly embodied by the suitably ordinary yet completely extraordinary Simon Russell Beale. The former serf can neither express his lifelong love for the much grander Ranevskaya (Sinead Cusack), the impractical owner of the estate he eventually buys, nor his affection for her slightly bitter, plainspeaking daughter Varya (the remarkably good Rebecca Hall), who carries a torch for him. The fact that no member of this threesome finds any real salvation at play's end -- Lopakhin owns the land but is left completely alone; Ranevskaya decides to return to her no-good lover in Paris; and Varya becomes a housekeeper for another family -- remains heartbreaking at the final curtain.
In some ways, Cusack's accomplishment is more impressive, as she is not ideally cast. Indeed, the fierce intelligence and groundedness in reality she recently showed in Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll still comes to the fore, traits that the flighty, romantic Ranevskaya would not seem to possess. Yet, Cusack convinces in scene after scene, especially in an almost terrifying breakdown at a party she throws as her estate is being auctioned off.
Moreover, Beale, Cusack, and company are struggling against Anthony Ward's too-spare set design -- its Oriental rugs reminiscent of Peter Brook's legendary staging of the play at BAM -- which never conveys the luxuriousness of the estate, and leaves a vast beige blankness that provides little visual interest. Catherine Zuber's costumes are excellent, as usual, and Paul Pyant provides some nifty lighting effects.
The trans-Atlantic cast, part Brits and part Americans, don't quite have the tightly-knit ensemble feeling down yet; but some actors from each side of the Pond register strongly. The invaluable Richard Easton makes the most of bumbling butler Firs; Josh Hamilton is effective, if slightly charmless, as the vain manservant Yasha; Morven Christie is a properly lovely Anya; and Paul Jesson fills the shoes of Ranevskaya's rambling brother, Gaev, with aplomb. Meanwhile, most of the other cast members seem to overplay or underplay their roles, adding to the overall feeling of imbalance.
Mendes is the latest in a line of A-list directors --- including fellow Brits Ian Rickson and Trevor Nunn -- who have been unsuccessful in their quest to bring a coherent tone to this most complex of playwrights. (Perhaps he will prove more successful when this cast takes on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale shortly.) And while no time spent in Chekhov's company is a waste, another squandered opportunity to appreciate the writer's greatness is almost as sad a state of affairs as the ultimate fate of the titular cherry orchard.