Originally commissioned as a comedy, Anton Chekhov’s first produced full-length play, the four-act Ivanov, was quickly revised and turned into something significantly more serious after its initial presentation. Indeed, the State Theatre of Nations adaptation currently running at New York City Center as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival is darkly comic, with its moody, depressed, seemingly apathetic protagonist as its antihero. Award-winning star of stage, film, and television in his native Russia, Evgeny Mironov is the title character, Ivanov Nikolai, a government administrator in his thirties whose life is falling apart, but he’s not exactly facing his many hardships head-on. His wife, Anna (Chulpan Khamatova) — the former Sarah Abramson, who was disinherited by her wealthy Jewish family when she married Nikolai — is dying. Her doctor, Lvov (Dmitriy Serduk), insists that Nikolai take her abroad to rest, but he claims he can’t afford it and instead goes out every night to get away from her. “She is upset by your treatment of her,” the doctor tells Nikolai. “I will speak frankly: Your conduct is killing her.”
Nikolai attends a raucous party at the home of Pavel Lebedev (Igor Gordin) and his wife, Zinaida (Natalya Pavlenkova), to whom he owes money and whose daughter, the twenty-year-old Sasha (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), takes a romantic interest in him. Meanwhile his uncle, Matvey Shabelskiy (Victor Verzhbitsky), is a count and a wastrel who believes he can get back on his feet by marrying the rich widow Marfa Babakina (Marianna Schults). And a distant relative of Nikolai’s, freeloader Mikhail Borkin (Alexander Novin), regularly comes up with bombastic ideas to make money, including one hysterical plan involving dogs and rabies. “Nikolai, my dear friend, you’re always moody,” Mikhail says. “You’re a fine, intelligent man, but you lack nerve, a certain drive.” But Nikolai knows that there is something wrong with him. “I am terribly guilty, but my thoughts are muddled, and I’m unable to understand myself or other people,” he says. “I myself don’t understand what’s happening to me.” Things come to a head when Anna and the doctor catch him kissing Sasha, leading to yet more tragedy.
Director Timofey Kulyabin’s (Macbeth, Kill) sleek, nearly-three-hour production is splendidly paced, a psychodrama focusing on character. Oleg Golovko’s sets change from small rooms in Nikolai and Anna’s home to Nikolai’s crowded, claustrophobic office before opening out to the Lebedev home and a wedding hall. The scenery is pushed upstage and back by stagehands with the curtain still up so the audience can witness it. (Golovko also designed the costumes.) The cast is uniformly excellent, led by company artistic director Mironov’s (Robert Lepage’s Hamlet / Collage, Robert Wilson’s Pushkin’s Fairy Tales) poignant portrayal of a deeply troubled man who has lost control of his life and does not know if he wants it back. “In my opinion, this psychosis of mine, with all its attributes, can make one only laugh,” he says. Khamatova, who starred in Shushkin’s Stories with Mironov at City Center in 2016, is strong as Anna, a role that could easily devolve into maudlin melodrama, and Gordin (A Gentle Creature, The Lady with the Dog) excels as the conflicted Pavel, who is not so sure that he is in favor of Nikolai’s relationship with his daughter. “There’ll be a scandal; the whole town will talk,” he says to Sasha, “But it’s better to endure a scandal than to ruin your life.”
Seeing this Russian presentation of Ivanov — considered a lesser Chekhov play but an important stepping-stone for the future writer of The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull — at New York City Center is also a fascinating cultural experience. The crowd on opening night consisted primarily of Russians, many of whom chatted during the show, got up and down incessantly to change seats and use the facilities, smoked a remarkable amount of cigarettes outside at intermission, and let their cell phones go off constantly during the performance, without fear or embarrassment. They also gave entrance applause to several of the actors, who are mostly unknown in America, and laughed and nodded in agreement on a different beat than non-Russian speakers did, and not only when the English surtitles either were slightly out of sync or off completely for a few lines. But none of that took away from what is a compelling production of a work that feels fresh and alive today, asking penetrating questions that we all face, at one time or another.