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The Present brings us quite a gift, the Broadway debut of Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett, who is absolutely captivating in an uneven black comedy that can go from penetrating to tiresome in the blink of an eye. “An eclectic mix,” Yegor (David Downer) says about the guests at Anna’s (Blanchett) explosive fortieth birthday party, but he also could be speaking about the play itself. Adapted for the Sydney Theatre Company by Andrew Upton from Anton Chekhov’s first major play, sometimes known as Platonov, which remained unperformed in Chekhov’s lifetime, The Present is a three-hour look at lust, the aging aristocracy, personal and professional failure, and fear of death. Upton, who is married to Blanchett, transports the story to 1990s Russia, where the Clash and Joy Division dominate the soundtrack. Anna is considering remarrying following the death of her beloved husband, a much older man called the General, at least in part to maintain control of her late husband’s vast holdings. Among those interested in Anna, either as a bride, a one-night stand, or a business partner are Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), a doctor and Anna’s stepbrother, who has brought hot young student Maria (Anna Bamford) as his date; the practical Yegor, an older businessman who has come with his bland son, Dimitri (Brandon McClelland); Kirill (Eamon Farren), a snarky DJ who is the son of retired lawyer Alexi (Martin Jacobs); and Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), the General’s best friend who is married to Sasha (Susan Prior), the daughter of retired colonel Ivan (Marshall Napier) and the sister of Nikolai. Also at the party are Sergei (Chris Ryan), Anna’s stepson, who is married to Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), and former KGB operative Osip (Andrew Buchanan). “Birthdays are always lively. Balancing the past and the present is tricky at the best of times,” Yegor pronounces. “But that’s Russia these days, isn’t it, Alexi?” Alexi responds, “Russia? I couldn’t tell you.” Anna holds court as her guests drink heavily, argue over politics and socioeconomic conditions, and flirt with one another, risking their friendships, marriages, and reputations in one misguided night of debauchery. “It’s so hard to do what you really, really desperately want in life,” Anna says. “It’s so much easier to do shit you don’t care either way about.”
Chekhov’s play has previously been adapted by the likes of Michael Frayn, Lev Dodin, Trevor Griffiths, and David Hare, with such actors as Rex Harrison, James McArdle, and Stephen Rea playing Mikhail Platonov. Roxburgh (Rake, Hacksaw Ridge), who has been performing with Blanchett for more than twenty years — the duo has played Trigorin and Nina in The Seagull, Vanya and Yelena in Uncle Vanya, and Hamlet and Ophelia in Hamlet — is dynamic when he and Blanchett are together onstage, but it’s difficult to understand why all the other women are so enamored of him. Upton (The Maids, The Cherry Orchard) has made Mikhail, a disgruntled, disappointed schoolteacher who wanted to be a famous writer, and Anna much older than in Chekhov’s original, which works well for the parts of the play dealing with aging and death but leaves much to be desired regarding sexual chemistry and several far-fetched plot twists. The smoke-filled scene in which various women state their love for Mikhail is quite a sight but doesn’t make narrative sense. And while some elements of the anarchic narrative are exciting, particularly those involving Anna’s revolutionary spirit, the table-dancing scene is a bit ludicrous. The play is sort of Chekhov light, with aspects of Don Juan and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy tossed in. Director John Crowley (Brooklyn, A Behanding in Spokane) can’t gain control of the overall chaos, although many individual scenes crackle and, figuratively and literally, explode. Over the course of the too-long three-hour show, you can’t take your eyes off two-time Oscar winner Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Hedda Gabler), who wears three awesome outfits by Alice Babidge, who also designed the sets; even when Blanchett is in the background, her every movement is mesmerizing, lit beautifully by Nick Schlieper. When she is offstage, the play suffers, but when she is front and center, armed and dangerous, downing drinks, trying to nail down her future, The Present is a rather fine offering.