WHAT “The Present”
WHERE Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.
INFO $79-$149; 212-239-6200; thepresentbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Dazzling Blanchett, thrilling almost-Chekhov.
It would be possible — and extremely pleasurable — to spend most of the three hours at “The Present” just watching Cate Blanchett. Here she is playing the seemingly confident widow Anna on the eve of her 40th birthday. She stares out from her late husband’s Russian country estate wearing a filmy summer dress. She lounges unselfconsciously in the laps of her party guests, enjoying a foot massage from her grown stepson.
And here she is, bored and restless at her luncheon, slipping off her bra without disturbing the dress and brandishing a bottle of vodka as she incites a near orgy by dancing on the table. Look, here she is again, belching loud and begging for love in her elegant horseback riding clothes.
By then, even if you had not seen the riveting, unpredictable Australian actress at BAM or City Center in Sydney Theater Company productions of Ibsen, Tennessee Williams or an update of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” you understand that Blanchett onstage, even more than on film, is a wild thing.
As mesmerizing as she is, however, it would be a serious mistake to consider “The Present” a star vehicle adapted for her by Andrew Upton, her husband, and, until last year, artistic director of this tremendously improved company.
This is dazzling ensemble theater, partnering Blanchett with the sly and thrilling Richard Roxburgh, her Vanya in 2012. Aptly identified in the program as “after Anton Chekhov’s ‘Platonov,’ ” the play is way “after” the first play by the Russian master, unperformed in his lifetime and seldom since. Upton sets his version in the 1990s, changing Chekhov’s gracious pre-revolutionary Russian decay to a society with oligarchs and a few thugs.
And yet there isn’t a whiff of gimmickry in director John Crowley’s leisurely, bawdy, poignant production. We watch the friends and families in four evocative places of the house (décor by Alice Babidge), including a post-party limbo with Roxburgh’s drunken Platonov — here called Mikhail — sitting by himself on a bench.
This may not be strictly Chekhov. But it is deliriously Chekhovian, anxious about the environment and peopled with characters whose tragedies and comedies are layered in his identifiable mixed emotions. Mikhail is a failed writer reduced to teaching school. “I want every woman,” he exclaims and, before the party is over, every woman wants him. Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) is Chekhov’s omnipresent, unsatisfied doctor. Alexei (Martin Jacobs) is the aging man who won’t shut up about the old days.
But the truth is the present, like it or not. Anna, who wants to blow everything up, keeps looking for “my detonator,” though Blanchett and this splendid company need no help with the fireworks.