Ethan Hawke Tackles Ivanov, Christopher Durang Tries a Comic Remix With Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Welcome to Chekhov Town

In a sense, Chekhov had to invent his own peculiar method—"peculiar" meaning both distinctly odd as well as distinctively individual—that gives his work its lasting value. He clearly understood the rules of conventional playwriting, but, as his early play Ivanov (1887) demonstrates, he instinctively resisted obeying them. Ibsen, the playwright of highest stature in the period just before Chekhov, had found ways to adhere to the French "well-made play" form while infusing it with deeper psychology and higher meaning. Chekhov, in contrast, had to fragment it. In The Seagull and the three other masterpieces that followed it, he built mosaics of minute detail, under which the form's rigid outlines are only dimly glimpsed, like some half-buried memory, splintered and ironized beyond recall.

The upshot, over a century later, is that Chekhov has become universally influential and hopelessly inimitable. Ibsen fulfilled the form but left it unaltered; writers of quality can be Ibsenite. But Chekhov's methodology can't be duplicated, as many have learned to their cost—to call a writer "Chekhovian" is usually just a polite way of avoiding the phrase "pale imitation."

With good timing, Austin Pendleton's handsome new revival of Ivanov (Classic Stage Company) shows Chekhov locked in his formal struggle, with his method still only half evolved. Simultaneously, Christopher Durang's new comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Newhouse Theater), supplies a jovial demonstration of how a playwright with a distinctive approach of his own can deploy Chekhov's influence without fear. However else you might describe Durang, the words "pale imitation" certainly don't apply.

Hawke, Richardson, Hamlet references
Josh Lehrer
Hawke, Richardson, Hamlet references

Details

Ivanov
By Anton Chekhov
Translated by Carol Rocamora
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
866-811-4111, classicstage.org

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Christopher Durang
Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200, lct.org

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Ivanov virtually wants to be a melodrama. Its hopelessly unheroic hero, Nicolai Alexeyevich Ivanov (Ethan Hawke), belongs to the liberal-intellectual wing of the landed gentry, like the reformist figures in the later Chekhov plays. But his dreams of rescuing Russia have gone dead: His estate, where he once tried to introduce scientific farming, is virtually bankrupt; his crooked steward, Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald), has been robbing him blind. Ivanov has shocked the region by marrying Anna (Joely Richardson), the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, which disinherited her as a result. Now, six years later, she has become a hopeless invalid whom he has long since stopped loving. Cut off from the snobbish local gentry by his mixed marriage, he escapes the grief at home by visiting his neighbor Lebedev (Austin Pendleton), a henpecked alcoholic whose miserly wife, Zinaida (Roberta Maxwell), is the district's leading moneylender and Ivanov's principal creditor.

Thanks to Zinaida's stinginess, the entertainment there is grim, too; the one bright spot is the Lebedevs' daughter, Sasha (Juliet Rylance). Smart, forthright, and attractive, Sasha loves Ivanov and longs to rescue him from the mire of indecisiveness he has sunk into. (The play is loaded with references to Hamlet, a comparison Ivanov repeatedly makes and repudiates.) If Anna died, Ivanov could marry Sasha, with one stroke regaining social acceptability and wiping out his debts. The local gossip, which assumes that he only married Anna for her money, says that's exactly what he's planning. Ivanov, a man of honor, despises the gossip and resists Sasha, to whom he's deeply drawn. More indecisiveness, more torment.

Chekhov heaps the torment higher by parodying his hero's agonies in a comic subplot: Ivanov's uncle, Count Shabelsky (George Morfogen), a worn-out old salon cynic who lives off him, gets lured by Borkin into courting a vulgar but very rich widow, Babakina (Stephanie Janssen). And the playwright gives Ivanov an extra nemesis: Lvov (Jonathan Marc Sherman), the self-righteous local doctor (clearly inspired by Gregers in Ibsen's The Wild Duck) who adores Anna, believes the gossip, and lives to hector Ivanov about it.

Ivanov's circumstances alter but his situation doesn't deepen; it simply continues. As with his self-comparisons to Prince Hamlet, he takes positions only to repudiate them instantly. In Hawke's performance, you can practically watch the old mode of playwriting fall apart as Chekhov flails at it. Tremulous, frog-voiced, twitching and shaking like a man with lifelong d.t.s., he makes a princely wreck. You can easily see why everybody loves him, and why they have zilch chance of rescuing him. Rylance, gorgeously mixing grace and spunk, matches him superbly in their big scenes. Richardson, ethereally pretty, her long face framed by her long straight hair, is literally haunting; her drifty movements suggest the ghost of an unhappy ancestress. Morfogen, crisply funny and tenderly woebegone, makes Hawke an elegant foil.

The Sonia, Vanya, and Masha of Durang's title share a less grand but equally fraught home in contemporary Bucks County, the now middle-aged children of a college-professor couple who loved community theater, hence the kids' names. The parents are dead. Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), who nursed them through their long drawn-out old age, dementia, and death, have stuck to the house. Masha (Sigourney Weaver) has supported the whole clan by zipping off to become a movie superstar.

When Masha arrives unexpectedly, along with Spike (Billy Magnussen), her hot-bodied, much younger lover, you know there's trouble ahead. If you didn't know, the cleaning woman, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), would happily tell you so. Viewing her name as a passport to prophetic powers, she sees doom everywhere, the way morally clueless Spike sees opportunity and Masha another triumph for her rampant ego.

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