I love Richard Greenberg’s plays, and I love Chekhov’s four masterpieces. Yet it floors me, sometimes, that so many other people love, or at least purport to love, these writers. Greenberg, being alive and productive now, inevitably stirs up more contention. Along with lovers, he has detractors—something that’s virtually impossible to claim about Chekhov. I used to have a reputation as The Man Who Hated Chekhov, merely because I would occasionally grumble about the misunderstandings of those who loved him blindly, without reservation.
The simple truth is that both Chekhov and Greenberg employ tactics that are often less than easy to fathom. While displaying great compassion for their characters, they can’t help seeing those characters whole, flaws and all, as well as embedding them in a larger context that doesn’t always give the best impression of human behavior under pressure. Both writers tend to view life somewhat clinically, with neither Pollyanna-ish optimism nor sentimental despair. And the clinical view tends to make both optimists and pessimists in the audience a tad uncomfortable. In Greenberg’s work, the brittle, upper-class tone and the contemporary consciousness make his ironies sting with more immediacy, often triggering disparagement among the discomfited. Whereas with Chekhov, writing within the mores and conventions of a century ago, and depicting a long-gone way of life in a foreign language, the touch of coldness in the clinical approach is somehow easier to overlook, or to forgive.
Naturally, Greenberg has learned from his enshrined predecessor, as well as from Chekhov’s contemporaries, particularly Henry James—like Chekhov, a great notator of futile loves and unspoken sorrows. Greenberg’s 1990 play, The American Plan, newly revived as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway season at the Friedman Theatre, filters the sensibilities of both Chekhov and James through the patterns of 1940s and ’50s Broadway drama, which enshrined both in a distorted, oversimplified form. Greenberg, subtly, subverts the pattern, setting his story in the late 1950s but pulling the period’s oversimplifications back toward Chekhovian ambiguity.
A boy (Kieran Campion) and a girl (Lily Rabe) meet near a lakeside summer resort. He is handsome, well-bred, and ambitious; she is wealthy, imaginative, and lonely, under the watchful eyes of an eerily noncommittal black servant (Brenda Pressley) and a seemingly overprotective mother (Mercedes Ruehl). The boy and girl fall in love and plan to marry, but summer romances never go right, and all four characters’ motives are already so clouded that the only issue becomes how this one will go wrong. The second act brings the arrival of a second boy (Austin Lysy), but the obstacle he poses is not what either a 1960 or a 1990 playgoer would expect, and an epilogue taking place 10 years later shows that the story has neither a happy nor an unhappy ending for anyone involved. Simple endings, either way, belong to a more hokily theatricalized form of drama.
David Grindley’s production adds some uncertainties of its own, not always helpful, to the teasing flow of questions that shimmers through Greenberg’s text. The rhythm of the opening scenes is jerky, with everyone onstage sending unclear signals of their identity instead of projecting the script’s lucid ambiguity. Jonathan Fensom’s odd set, with its curtained back wall and traveling front drop, neither conveys the visual style the play draws from nor makes a strong statement of its own; the pop songs between scenes fit the work’s period, but not its tone. Luckily, Grindley’s strong cast, having found its footing after these initial stumbles, gets steadily better as the performance proceeds. Ruehl’s accent may seem to come from an expressionist fairy tale rather than reality, but in some ways, this is an expressionist fairy tale, and her authoritative acting puts the seal of conviction on it. Campion, not facile casting for his role, earns his way subtly into it; Lysy, cast closer to type, slides easily into his. Most impressive of all is Rabe, giving the heroine’s anguish and wistfulness exact weight, letting her Valkyrie grandeur convey her vulnerability, making her violent outbursts seem both natural and utterly unexpected.
The Cherry Orchard also paints hopelessly blighted, and self-blighted, love lives, but on a much wider canvas. Where Greenberg’s few characters can unfurl their souls with Jamesian spaciousness, Chekhov must use a pointillist technique to place so many lives precisely in the country-house life of 1904 Russia, where the society is about to undergo far more sweepingly traumatic changes than the English-speaking world has endured in the last century. The result is a play notoriously hard to assemble in solid form onstage, permeated as it is with the author’s awareness of his own impending death as well as his era’s. Chekhov, too, loved to pull stereotypes from the hokey theater that had preceded him and subtly reharmonize them back into the reality he was struggling to pinpoint; people at revivals of Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859) can get very antsy about the resemblance of its estate auction to the one in The Cherry Orchard‘s third act.
Sam Mendes, artistic director of the new Anglo-American company called the Bridge Project, loves nothing more than to theatricalize, and that’s the main problem of his Cherry Orchard, exacerbated by its mélange of harsh voices and mismatched accents. Mendes can’t resist turning what Chekhov has made subtle and real back into hokey old showbiz. This gives the company a strong grip on the play’s shape—the production offers long passages of genuine Chekhovian feeling, far surpassing the dreary monochrome drone of last fall’s Broadway Seagull—but also tends to make the performance seem both cheap and patchy. Paul Jesson’s Gaev, Ethan Hawke’s Trofimov, and Josh Hamilton’s Yasha all manage to dodge the cheapening; the first act of Sinead Cusack’s Ranevskaya shows what she might do with the role under subtler guidance. The overall effect is mildly disappointing, not painful; there’s hope for this company—even for Mendes, with works that require a broader touch. But you don’t want Norman Rockwell repainting your Seurats.