Even as the Oscar push for Revolutionary Road remains in full swing, director Sam Mendes returns to his theater roots with his latest production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 8th as part of the Bridge Project, a sort of theatrical foreign exchange program that for the next three years will combine talent from both sides of the pond (in this case the Americans include Josh Hamilton and Ethan Hawke, while Simon Russell Beale, Rebecca Hall, and Sinéad Cusack bat for the other side of the Atlantic) both at BAM and at Britain’s Old Vic where Kevin Spacey is artistic director.
Yes, it seems Hollywood has come home, something more than apparent in Mendes’s gala staging of the incomparable Tom Stoppard’s new and timely take on the Russian classic by Anton Chekov. It revolves around a well-to-do family suddenly facing financial meltdown and foreclosure on their fabulous estate with its crown jewel cherry orchard as the old economy and its inherent bourgeois values makes way for the new. Without a doubt this is the most accessible version of the play I’ve ever seen thanks to Stoppard’s genius, and the most downright fun production thanks to Mendes’s direction. And while the first quality is a triumph, the second nearly does the whole thing in.
The fantastic cast includes veterans of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and Rock ’N’ Roll, who fully grasp the gravitas that lies beneath the dark humor (Stoppard’s stock in trade as a playwright as well). Especially nuanced are Beale as Lopakhin, the former servant turned rich businessman, and Hall (who showed Woody Allen how to do neurosis without grating on our nerves in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as the stressed-out, lovesick Varya. Director Mendes, in contrast, desperately seems to be dancing as fast as he can. Instead of calmly placing trust in the playwright and the formidable actors, Mendes puts exclamation marks on the already exclamatory dialogue, adding a superfluous layer of nonstop comedy on top of Stoppard’s already hilarious and delectable writing (“To be or to shoot myself—that is the question,” one character declares).
Absent is a continuous flow from poignancy to humor and back, resulting in two hours and forty minutes of easy “pop” Chekhov. Ominous music roars as Lopakhin, in a drunken, violent rage, knocks over chairs one by one. A colorful ball scene with wondrous costume and production design takes place simultaneously onstage and through the massive shadows thrown onto the back wall, revealing that the characters are both overpowered and dwarfed by their essences—i.e., haunted by the slavery of the past. As with American Beauty, Mendes wraps deep meaning in sumptuous kitsch, then delivers the package with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. With The Cherry Orchard, he hits us over the head with explicit staging like the many pratfalls and physical comedy relief bits that can be counted on to interrupt every intense moment. A major turning point occurs during a fight between Sinéad Cusack’s Ranevskaya and Ethan Hawke’s Trofimov—only to be followed within seconds by the sound of Trofimov falling down the stairs offstage and Morven Christie’s Anya rushing in to announce the “It’s only a flesh wound”-like incident. The characters don’t slow down long enough for us to feel their pain; Mendes doesn’t seem to get that Chekhov is not screwball comedy.
And all this empty confectionery visualization over substance becomes a huge problem in the end with actors emphasizing that one light note for so long that the depths of darkness become unreachable. Mendes has muted the underlying anguish at the heart of both Stoppard and Chekhov to the point that the awareness of the epic tragedy of (and hope in) the family’s situation arrives not like an organic revelation but like a tacked on sad ending. “Can I give you a piece of advice?” Trofimov finally asks Lopakhin before suggesting he stop waving his arms around so much (that, by the way, all Lopakhin’s bragging is a form of arm waving). If only Mendes had heeded such advice, restrained those showman’s arms, and made room not for the audience to be entertained but to think, to be profoundly moved. Ironically, the director’s deep-seated desire that all enjoy his tasty Cherry Orchard, his fear of Chekhov’s brutal black humor, results in alienating us all the more by the time the curtain descends.