Cate Blanchett aims a gun directly at the audience in the opening moments of The Present, Andrew Upton's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Platonov, now playing at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Upton (who is married to Blanchett) has smartly refashioned the much-maligned early Chekhov effort in a way that feels especially relevant to 2017. As we've come to expect from Chekhov, the gun will fire before the play is over…but not for another three hours.
While lengthy for a Broadway play, The Present is actually a remarkable achievement in editing considering its source material: Following the travails of a downwardly mobile and romantically selfish Russian aristocrat, Platonov would run five hours if left as Chekhov wrote it. The original play suffers from superfluous characters and tangential plotlines. Granted, Chekhov drafted it when he was still in med school before hiding it away (an untitled manuscript was discovered in a safe deposit box 16 years after his death). He never got to hear his overwrought prose spoken aloud.
Luckily, Upton and director John Crowley have the benefit of a stellar company of actors from the Sydney Theatre Company for this mostly original play, which has the feeling of a new house built on the foundation of an old one. Characters and major plot points remain, but their significance has been repurposed. While Australian-accented Russians would normally feel distractingly anachronistic, it oddly works here, helping to disorient the audience for the duration of a story about the emotional drift into cold, meaningless space.
The Present takes place in the recent past: 1990s Russia, a time in which our characters find themselves floating in the wake left by the Soviet Union. Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) is the widow of a tyrannical general. She has invited all of her old friends to her country estate to celebrate her 40th birthday. Her weakling stepson, Sergei (Chris Ryan with a perfectly pathetic crustache), is there with his new wife, Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie). Sergei's wiseass friend, Nikolai (an abrasive Toby Schmitz), and his wife, Maria (Anna Bamford), are also in attendance. Lothario schoolteacher Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh) has designs on all of the women mentioned above, despite the presence of his wife, Sasha (Susan Prior). While the elderly Alexei (Martin Jacobs) talks of Russia's glorious past and his DJ son, Kirill (a repulsively predatory Eamon Farren), dreams of the dope beats of the future, Anna is bored out of her gourd. She wants to blow stuff up.
Blanchett dominates the stage like a Category 5 hurricane: All people and events revolve around her inescapable pull. Blanchett makes Anna's tenderness feel cold and calculated, only employed to get something she wants. The same is true of her devastating wrath, which is magnificent to behold.
Anna is the only woman who can get the best of Mikhail, a man who spends much of the play languidly rolling cigarette after cigarette, marinating in his own sense of misunderstood poetic brilliance. The handsome Roxburgh remarkably makes this mostly charmless character downright seductive, so that we understand why all the women are crazy for him.
That's not to say that we don't laugh at his ridiculous antics. Crowley shrewdly directs the play like the comedy it was meant to be, drawing humor from the occasionally cheesy dialogue and awkward silences. As Mikhail's various lovers drift in and out, The Present begins to feel like a sex farce written by Samuel Beckett.
All of the characters are slightly over-the-top, including Osip (the intimidating Andrew Buchanan), a mafioso in a double-breasted leather jacket. Nokia phone at his hip, David Downer plays proto-oligarch Yegor, while Brandon McClelland portrays his sour-faced son, Dimitri, who one suspects will become a close companion of Vladimir Putin before the century ends. Through a fresh set of circumstances, Upton captures the spirit of Chekhov's dark humor much better than a more traditional production of Platonov ever could.
The actors sport authentic '90s fashions: Dull neckties, baggy shirts, and high-waist jeans appear as if they will consume their wearers alive. Set and costume designer Alice Babidge lends the stage few comforting details: Colorful balloons and streamers cannot offset a dacha that is oppressively beige (we understand Anna's impulse to destroy it all). Behind that shell of a home is blackness, the nothing that remains when even that flimsy shelter is demolished. Sound designer Stefan Gregory pipes '90s pop music into this void: At one point, the sleepy birthday party devolves into an anarchic bacchanal set to the pulsating rhythm of Haddaway's "What Is Love." Is this what it means to party like a Russian?
At turns acidly satirical and starkly astute, The Present illuminates the gravity-free existence that built Russia today, a realm in which all facts are considered spin and morality is worn like the latest MAC lipstick. With the guiding ideology of Communism thoroughly smashed in 1989, Russians have been living in the post-truth world a lot longer than the rest of us. Through biting wit and what feels like uncomfortable prescience, The Present offers an opportunity to consider the impending age, when all of us will feel the pull of the black hole.