Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Starry Orchard

The other day I had the chance to go to the opening night of a new production of The Cherry Orchard at the Mark Taper Forum, starring Annette Bening and Alfred Molina. Actors love Chekhov because his material is bottomless, you could work on it forever and never stop discovering new nuances and meaning. The relationships are so rich and the characters -- each of them -- so deeply drawn, that it requires an ensemble that is really in tune. That also makes it extremely difficult to do, and is why there is so much bad Chekhov done. Only Ibsen suffers more from poor productions, in my opinion.

With that said, I am happy to report that the Taper production, directed by British theater whiz Sean Mathias using a new adaptation by Martin Sherman (Bent), is quite good. Sometimes you see film stars take to the stage and get eaten up by the large, open space and technical requirements of physicality and vocalization. But Bening and Molina are old pros, both trained, experienced and very much at home on the stage. I was particularly impressed with Bening's physical freedom, and I posted this picture to show that. She was very much in command of the demanding role of Madame Ranyevskaya. Molina is even stronger as the peasant-made-good, Lopakhin, who ends up buying the estate from the profligate Madame R. I've seen Molina do Shakespeare and, now, Chekhov, and his classical chops are considerable. What is especially exciting is you never see him working. It appears effortless and so very real. His third act speech about buying the orchard is a highlight.

For all its quality, though, this starry production plays it very safe most of the time. I was never grabbed by the lapels and made to feel for these people. It is a very well-done production that never fully engages the audience. Perhaps they'll turn up the burner as the run progresses.

The opening night crowd included such famous faces as Mr. Bening, Warren Beatty, who I saw get swamped by photographers and autograph hounds as he approached the theater with his family. He was very generous and good-natured considering they were rather like a pack of wolves. I might have been most excited to see Cherry Jones, one of New York's most fantastic stage actors. Her girlfriend, Sarah Paulson, is in the show and shines as the bordering-on-spinster daughter Varya. Probable Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman was there as well, appearing completely unaffected by the silly hype surrounding awards season.