One of the most deeply satisfying theatrical unions in recent years is the mingling of Anton Chekhov, director Austin Pendleton and the tiny Classic Stage Company. In "Uncle Vanya," "Three Sisters" and, now, the early "Ivanov," Pendleton and luscious casts have been layering the lights and abysses of Chekhov's wildly human mixed-emotions with a masterly complexity that seems almost nonchalant.
"Ivanov" was Chekhov's first produced play, written in 1887, eight years before "The Seagull" kicked off his astonishing quartet of great works. In many ways, the thing's a mess and, on the basis of the 1997 production that starred a surprisingly mopey Kevin Kline, it seemed an unpleasant mess -- blunt when we expected implication, straining to reconcile anti-Semitism and tuberculosis with swatches of broad humor and old-fashioned melodramatic devices.
But Pendleton obviously gets this embryonic play. It's still a mess. But the handsome production -- with the self-challenging Ethan Hawke as Ivanov and Pendleton a last-minute substitute for an injured Louis Zorich as the wealthy landowner -- embraces messiness as emotional generosity..
The hurdle is Ivanov -- sometimes called "Hamlet of the Steppes." Kline just seemed selfish as the provincial landowner so disillusioned with his life that he's too bored to stay with his Jewish wife while she dies of consumption. Hawke -- with his feral daring and dark smoky voice -- suggests that the decline is a real depression that sucks him helplessly into a vortex of self-loathing, self-pity and self-love.
This diagnosis doesn't take Ivanov off the hook or make him irresistible. But it does make his brooding comprehensible, as we can't help but tumble down with him. Joely Richardson has an exquisite gravity as his wife, who left her faith and family for him. Juliet Rylance brings a golden forthrightness to the role of Sasha, who loves him and has the money to get him out of debt. George Morfogen and Roberta Maxwell, veteran treasures of New York theater, capture the foolishness and the dignity of Sasha's rich parents.
Carol Rocamora's excellent translation is rich with Chekhov's musical rhythm and awkward silence. And Pendleton, an actor who seems to have faces behind faces, anchors the chaos with sublime comfort and competence.
WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., Manhattan
INFO $55-$65; 212-352-3101; classicstage.org
BOTTOM LINE Hawke and Pendleton rediscover "Ivanov."