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.
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.
Like Uncle Vanya‘s Professor Serebryakov, Masha has decided to sell the property (which, of course, includes a small cherry orchard) out from under Sonia and Vanya. But never fear; Durangian events alter Chekhovian cases. Everyone has been invited to attend a costume ball, as Disney characters. And Vanya’s written his own update of the play Konstantin writes in The Seagull, with global warming added. Did I mention that a lovely aspiring actress named Nina (Genevieve Angelson) conveniently happens to be visiting next door?
Everything goes wonderfully awry—for good, for ill, but mostly for comic effect. Durang uses Chekhov as a springboard, to bounce the old nuanced emotions into our new hurry-up world. The ongoing stylistic disjunction embodies the dislocation everyone over 40 feels, in this time when all reactions are instantaneous, and all cultural forms except theater are downloadable. The work’s apex is a gigantic, deliciously self-contradictory rant by Vanya, triggered when he catches Spike texting (what else?) while the play’s being read.
Nicholas Martin directs this mix of borscht and burgers stylishly. Nielsen and Weaver, twin caryatids of Durangian comedy, handle their high moments with élan, as do Magnussen and Grant. Only Angelson, given less opportunity, seems bland. But the remix, overall, is delicious: Thanks to Durang’s awareness that he’s not Chekhov, and mustn’t try to be, his results have a non-imitative, genuinely Chekhovian feel.