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A CurtainUp Review

From the moment Bob Waldman's arrangement of "Andante Canibile" from Tchaikovsky's String Quartet #1 in D send the signal for the stage lights to come up and settle on the lonely figure of Nicolai Ivanov (Kevin Kline) reading at a table we know we're in for an evening of theater as theater should be. Fully nuanced characters that allow the supporting players as well as the stars to pull out all the stops, inventive but not showy sets (John Lee Beatty), a steady back-and-forth ride between hilarious farce and drama.

As always, and especially in a play that despite many rewrites, never quite satisfied its author, there are some moments that are less perfect than other, but on the whole this production is a vital and enjoyable theatrical experience. Sure it's melodramatic. But it's also vastly entertaining right to each act's slam-bang finale.

Those looking for a play to share with high school and college aged of sons, daughters, nephews and nieces need search no further. The in-between generation of boomers and downsized executives will see many of their own periods of "Angst" reflected in Ivanov's anguished self-absorption.

Ivanov, which was Chekhov's first full-length play has long been the Cinderella in his distinguished pantheon; the somewhat rough-edged first born in a family dominated by, four popular sisters (The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Sea Gull ). Now, a three Prince Charmings have come along to rescue Ivanov from its poor relation status: Prince David, Prince Gerald and Prince Kevin.

Prince David is of course playwright David Hare -- (See our file cabinet for his most recent Broadway play, Skylight ) -- here wearing his second hat as a revitalizer of plays he feels deserve to be seen in a new light. Using a translation by Alex Wilbraham, (Hare does not speak Russian), he has created a lively and vital adaptation. While interesting as a precursor to future masterpieces this "new" Ivanov succeeds in making us appreciate it on its own merits. It is full of a very young man's daring in the direct way it grapples with all the Russian landowners' foibles, not the least of these being the pervasive anti-Semitism to which events of this century have made us ever more sensitive. In fact the most explosive scene in this place is not the gun shot finale -- (If you're a seasoned theater goer, you'll know that I'm not giving anything away when I mention this since it's a well-know theatrical rule that a gun seen in the first act must go off at some point) -- but the explosive confrontation between Ivanov and his tubercular wife Anna (Jane Atkinson).

c Prince number two is director Gerald Guittierez. He has given Hare's adaptation just the sort of lively, non-stuffy production needed to give it an up-to-date flavor. He maneuvers the exemplary cast he's assembled around the Beaumont stage with the skill and style of a choreographer. The way he steers a servant, (William Preston), around the Lebedev's reception room in Act 2 -- silent, blank-faced, one stocking drooping -- adds yet another priceless touch to an already hilariously funny scene. The director's talent for smooth transitions is particularly evident after the scene when Ivanov, goaded by his desperate wife, gives voice to the deep seated cancer of his anti-Semitism and calls her "you dirty Jew" and tells her she is going to die. Guittierez lets the ensuing suspense build to a crescendo as we watch the study with the two actors slide from view to be replaced, not by a funeral follow up but a wedding reception -- complete with Russian music, men in top hats and petals falling from the sky.

Our third prince is of course Kevin Kline in the title role. His star power pulled pre-opening ticket sales and will undoubtedly continue to draw audiences who might not otherwise go to an obscure play or one they think of as a problem play by an as yet unfinished writer. Being the versatile actor he is, Mr. Kline elicits feelings of both sympathy and scorn for this once full of zest man who now feels himself to be "completely superfluous" -- the kind of burnt-out case who still experiences bursts of emotion though his ups never last. Ivanov's emotional see-sawing is clearest in the scene when Sasha (Hope Davis) declares her love for him and he reacts almost reflexively with "A new life!" This is as tough a role as the actor has ever undertaken, since he can easily test your patience and sympathy. In the end, even as you detest him for proving himself to be as deep-seated a bigot as the silly and empty-headed people who surround him, you can't help being curious about just what makes him refuse to "play Hamlet" and yet unable to deal with economic realities or understand the ennui that has made him immune not only to his wife's love but her physical suffering.

Kline whose most praised movie roles call upon his comedic talents is confined to the play's drama. So are the two leading ladies, Jayne Atkinson as his wife and Hope Davis as the young woman next door who is determined to once more be a man above the mediocrity of their empty milieu. It is these two beautifully realized characters who keep us searching for that part of Ivanov that we might admire rather than disdain. It is they who make us realize that Ivanov will never, as the modern jargon would have it, get his act together. In Anna's case, there's her declaration "I'm beginning to think life has shortchanged me" and the long overdue anger that prompts the electrifying Act 3 husband-and-wife confrontation. From Sasha we have her Act 4 bridal jitters.

To move from the central to the secondary players, these are so good that given less outstanding leads, they could easily steal the evening's thunder. In a review already overlong because there's so much to say, it's impossible to more than touch on some of these performance gems.

Marian Seldes as the compulsively stingy and mean-spirited Madame Lebedev turns a small part into a major achievement (as she did with an even smaller part in this summer's revival of Dead End ). Just watching her face when she is on the sideline is to see why a good performance extends even to those scenes where an actor just seems to be standing around.

There are two other particularly affecting and amusing characters: 1. Ivanov's misanthrophic uncle (Robert Foxworth) who states "I need new people to despise" as his plea to be taken along to the Lebedev's evening gatherings. 2 Seldes' hapless spouse played with just the right mix of wryness and pain by Max Wright, and bearing a remarkable resemblance to the poker-faced former Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

Tom McGowan is forceful and amusing as the stewart of Ivanov's estate. His character is the direct opposite of his employer's: Enterprising, adaptable and spirited, typical of the modern Russians who have thrived since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides having some of the funniest lines he also holds the foreshadowing smoking gun. Rob Campbell ably portrays another character in direct contrast with Ivanov's self-doubt, the self-confidently righteous young country doctor.

Since costumes are especially important in a period piece, compliments are due to Catherine Zuber for the subtle way she's dresed this big cast. Also worth noting is James F. Ingalls' imaginative lighting of Beatty's splendidly versatile set.

If this production has one fault it's an occasional bit of problematic stage blocking. The director seems taken with symmetry which is lovely in the arrangement of the actors to conform to the horseshoe edge of the stage during the encore, but which several times obstructs the view of people sitting in the side sections. In one such scene, Kevin Kline and Hope Davis are obscured by another actor positioned in a direct horizontal line. If the director sat in at least several seats in each section of the house as Mozart was wont to do, this could have been avoided. On the same subject, Kevin Kline also occasionally forgets the format of the orchestra and seems to have his back to the stage right secton somewhat too often. As long as we're speaking about the house, the dead spots so many audiences complained about in the past, have happily been eliminated by the Beaumont's renovations.

By Anton Chekhov
Adapted by David Hare
Directed by Gerald Guittierez
Starring Kevin Kline as Ivanov
Cast of 13 (plus extras) includes Jayne Atkinson, Hope Davis and Marian Seldes
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 W. 65 St. (212) 239-6200
Performances 10/23/97-1/20/98 (Opens 11/20//97
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 11/20/97

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