Ethan Hawke in the title role of <I>Ivanov</i>
Ethan Hawke in the title role of Ivanov
© Joan Marcus
Those foolish Russians. Swilling vodka. Worrying over rubles. Contemplating suicide. If you haven't guessed, we're back in Chekhovland. And, if you're a dedicated theatergoer in New York, you probably know the most popular entrance to that rather distinctive theme park (the unhappiest place on earth) is Classic Stage Company, which has been making its way through the great Russian dramatist's masterworks over the past few seasons.

This time, they've taken on a particularly tricky assignment with Ivanov, a play which can too easily turn into an evening of enuui equal to any spent by the playwright's characters in their 19th-century Russian wasteland. Instead, director Austin Pendelton and his incredibly committed troupe, led by the blazing Ethan Hawke, have treated the material as something close to farce, albeit with the requisite moments of tragedy properly integrated. The result may sometimes feel seriously (or should I say unseriously) unbalanced, but thankfully it's rarely boring.

In many ways, Carol Rocamora's translation makes crystalline clear that Ivanov is the Chekhovian equivalent to Hamlet with the title character facing his own "to be or not to be" conundrum. His problem is neither an incestuous mother nor murderous uncle, but whether he can live with his own guilt about falling out of love with his dying wife Anna (Joely Richardson) – a Jewess now disinherited by her family and disdained by Ivanov's friends -- while becoming infatuated with the much-younger Sasha (Juliet Rylance).

While Hawke seems to be taking the situation lying down, literally, when the audience first encounters him on Santo Loquasto's set, he only rarely stays in one spot afterwards – often fidgeting, flailing, fussing, all the while seemingly trying to escape his own skin. It's a physically daring and vocally draining performance during which you half-expect Ivanov to die of exhaustion any second, which would make the use of that portentous gun unnecessary. (Remember, it's Chekhovland!)

Hawke's balls-to-the-wall style contrasts sharply and smartly with his leading ladies, from the quiet regality of the divine Richardson, who breaks our hearts in just a few short scenes, to the serene intelligence of the always luminous Rylance, who proves to be the play's wisest character despite her youth. And while both women ultimately seem too good (in every sense of the word) for Ivanov, you also understand the attraction.

As is customary in Chekhov, these primary players are surrounded by a wealth of hangers-on, passers-by, and other personages you'd prefer to never meet in real life, but who provide their own sort of welcome company for this nearly three-hour journey.

None provide more joy than Sasha's father, the hen-pecked, addled-brained Lebdev, brought to vivid life in Pendleton's antic, often hilarious portrayal. He's beautifully mismatched by a stern Roberta Maxwell as his penny-pinching wife.

Among the rest of the top-notch supporting cast, George Morfogen is indelible as Ivanov's wasp-tongued yet melancholy uncle, Count Shabelsky, who dallies dangerously with the wealthy young widow Babakina (a perhaps too-appealing Stephanie Janssen); Glenn Fitzgerald is completely convincing as the scheming estate manager Borkin; and Jonathan Marc Sherman is properly pompous as Lvov, Anna's ultra protective doctor and Ivanov's constant tormentor.

But as Chekhov makes clear in Ivanov, no man has a greater enemy than his own mind.