Forget the samovar. This is a vodka party, not a tea party, unused as we may be to Chekhov's characters getting drunk and dancing on tabletops. Variously known as Platonov, Wild Honey, Fatherlessness, and The Disinherited, Anton Chekhov's untitled first script was not discovered until 1920, some 16 years after the playwright's death. It's a young man's play, transformed into a terrific drama by Andrew Upton for the Sydney Theatre Company's production, now on Broadway.
The new title, The Present, presents some need for interpretation: Is it present as in "gift" or present as in "now"? Both work, since it begins with a birthday party (we've been here before, friends: Three Sisters), and when one of Anna's past lovers turns up at the party without a present and finally declares his passion, she replies, "You could have wrapped it." On the other hand, it's a play about time —the past as it torments the present. The play takes place in the mid-1990s, consider how it speaks to the Russia of now as well as then. It is a tantalizing adaptation, both very funny and very moving. Perhaps the most resonant and chilling moment — delivered superbly — comes at the end of Act III: "Time's up."
We recognize all these as familiar from the masterworks: all the boredom, the yawning, the inertia; all the sadness, the dashed hopes, and the character who insists work is the only cure for disappointment. And of course, there is an inherited country house and there are doctors, young wives, and old husbands; middle-aged men, young men, all besotted, arrogant, drunk, eccentric, pathetic. And while listing the familiar Chehovian themes and characters, remember Chekhov's famous advice about guns: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Act 1, scene 1 of The Present begins with both a rifle and a pistol — both loaded.
Cate Blanchett plays Anna; she is beyond beautiful. And if you're expecting the ice queen, you'll be delighted to find Blanchett can clown it up with the best of them. Two noteworthy moments among many: Weeping, she wipes her nose on her lover's sleeve; exhausted and drunk, she unhooks her bra, fishes it out through her sleeve and throws it on the floor. She can swerve from desperate to maternal to sweet to teasing with no notice whatsoever.
The brilliant Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail, everybody's lover, the man who cannot resist women, the man women cannot resist, although it's always been Anna. His self-loathing mingles with his supreme self-indulgence in a subtle and complex character portrait.
The large cast provides ensemble truths. What a touchy-feely crowd this is, always at each other, ruffling hair, hugging, weeping, kissing, patting.
When in the first moments of the play, Nikolai is playing chess with Anna, and says, "And we're changing our ways, taking different roads. Love, love will tear us apart again." Was there ever a more Chekhovian line?
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Through March 19.