Scott Foley and Brooke Adams in The Cherry Orchard
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Scott Foley and Brooke Adams in
The Cherry Orchard
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The Atlantic Theater Company production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is wildly uneven and often frustrating. On the plus side, director Scott Zigler, armed with Tom Donaghy's blunt adaptation, shakes off some of the excesses that we've come to expect from revivals of works by the Russian master. Conversely, Zigler nearly obliterates the subtext and treats poignant scenes as if they are fodder for slapstick routines. In its best moments, the production is like a feather duster on a baroque cabinet, but purists beware; it's just as often equivalent to a Brillo pad on fine china.

Although it's hard to discern from this production, The Cherry Orchard is a heartbreaking story. An aristocratic family in fin de siècle Russia can't adapt to changing times and, as a result, is threatened with losing their estate -- including the legendary orchard that's provided them with comfort for generations. ("It's been written about in three encyclopedias," notes the proprietor's brother, Leonid Andreyevich Gayev.) As in most Chekhov plays, all of the characters have their private disappointments: Misplaced acts of trust lead to betrayal, aging men and women regret the life decisions that they've made, and people fall for those who spurn their advances.

Yet Chekhov famously labeled his plays "comedies," and the creative team interprets this as an open call to indulge in labored shtick. The first time we see Madame Ranevskaya, for example, she's frantically riding a child's hobbyhorse in a fit of joie de vivre. Servants crash into furniture and each other with exaggerated ineptitude, and the elderly servant Firs mumbles under his breath even when the script doesn't call for him to speak. Moments later, he expends so much effort in attempting to carry a coffee tray that you'd think the play had turned into a commedia dell' arte sketch.

Before dismissing the production as entirely misguided, theatergoers should know that this kind of approach has historical justification. According to the influential Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, Chekhov said his plays were "vaudevilles" that his contemporary Stanislavski had corrupted into "sentimental dramas." For better or worse, the Atlantic's is far from traditional; the characters sometimes speak to the audience in direct address, and that's only one example of the production's theatricality. Charlotta's magic show during the party scene is usually dealt with as a function of the text, but here it's a treat for the audience as she shows us what she learned during her days in the circus.

Donaghy's translation, which clocks in at just over two hours, includes a rarely performed scene culled from the original Chekhov text. It has been said that Samuel Beckett was deeply influenced by Chekhov; the darkly absurd humor that both writers shar is unmistakable in the new scene, wherein the line "It's time to die, old man" is played for laughs.

The "old man" is Firs, played by Alvin Epstein, whose excellent performance at times calls to mind his work in the Irish Rep's recent production of Beckett's Endgame.Some other standouts in this strong cast include Brooke Adams in the female lead; Scott Foley, who underwent a dramatic physical transformation to inhabit the role of Trofimov; and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., convincing as Lopakhin. Whitlock is black and, as a result, Lopakhin's journey from rags to riches, from servant to free man, resonates all the more strongly with American audiences.

The design is much more traditional than the other production elements, but it's still innovative. Scott Pask's set captures the grandeur of the estate, and it collapses to reveal the breathtaking Russian countryside behind it. Howard Werner's lighting accents the set beautifully, both inside and outside the house. At one point, the family overhears a traveling Jewish band -- and so do we, thanks to Fitz Patton's original compositions, which have an authentic, Eastern European flavor. Costumer Theresa Squire's most memorable creation is Charlotta's flowing, bright orange dress.

The tone of the production is inconsistent. The second act is presented far more naturalistically than the first, and is all the better for it. Excessive physical humor sometimes gets in the way of the characters and the dialogue. Still, this flawed revival makes so many bold and interesting choices that it shouldn't be missed by anyone who cares about Chekhov.