Many consider “The Cherry Orchard” to be Chekhov’s masterpiece. I do not share that opinion. To me, it falls short in many respects. It revisits many themes that Chekhov addressed more artfully in his earlier plays, particularly in “Uncle Vanya.” It has too many characters to develop more than sketchily. Furthermore, most of these characters are insufficiently compelling to merit our attention. The plot has an element that I have never understood: it defies reason that Ranevskaya (Diane Lane) would hold a party on the very day that her estate is to be auctioned. However, the verdict of history is that the play is a major classic, so it was intriguing to see what a promising American playwright, Stephen Karam, would do with it in his “new version” for Roundabout Theatre.
The verdict is mixed. The translation is quite idiomatic, but the central concept of the production did not work for me. Karam tries to draw analogies between the effects of serfdom in Russia and the legacy of slavery in America. Instead of nontradtional (P.C. for colorbiind) casting, we have color-coded casting. Three characters who represent Russia’s future — nouveau riche landowner Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau), proletarian student Trofimov (Kyle Beltran) and the lucky neighbor Simeon-Pischik (Chuck Cooper) — and one who escapes it — manservant Yasha (Maurice Jones) — are all played by black actors. All the others, who are more or less victims of social change, are played by white actors — Ranevskaya, her daughterr Anya (Tavi Gevison), her stepdaughter Vanya (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother Gaev (John Glover), governess Charlotta Ivanovna (Tina Benko), clerk Yepikhodov (Quinn Mattfield), maid Dunyasha (Susannah Flood) and servant Firs (Joel Grey). It’s an interesting idea, but I did not think it was a valid analogy. For one thing, serfdom was not based on race. I'm not sure why the tramp who interrupts the picnic scene suddenly begins reciting Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus."
Most of the actors were creditable, but not memorable; however, they did not seem to be working as an ensemble. The party scene, lively to a fault, seemed to belong to a different play. The incidental music by Nico Muhly did not suggest Russia. A brief melody after the party scene incongruously recalled the “mazel tov” song heard at Jewish celebrations. Scott Pask’s set design was low-key, although I did like the Calderesque mobiles that represented the cherry trees. There’s an area rug in act one that two actors tripped on. Some of Michael Krass's costuming choices were puzzling, especially a particularly garish outfit for Lopakhin. Director Simon Godwin, an import from London, did not seem to have a sure grip on the material. It isn’t a terrible production, just a misguided one. Running time: two hours 20 minutes including intermission.