NEW YORK – The Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street is presenting "Ivanov," a rarely seen Chekhov play from 1887 that is based in part on one of his finest short stories, "On the Road."
With "Ivanov," Chekhov set out to create a Russian Hamlet, a character who suffers from the inner emptiness he had observed among the educated young of the day. The CSC production features the film and stage actor Ethan Hawke in the title role, supported by an admirable group of actors assembled by director Austin Pendelton, who is also in the company playing the role of Lebedev, a Russian landowner.
"Ivanov" is Chekhov’s first major play, written nine years before "The Sea Gull" and a quarter of a century before the magnificent "The Cherry Orchard." Though "Ivanov" established Chekhov’s reputation as a playwright, he was dissatisfied with the play. He called it "a dramatic miscarriage" and spent years rewriting it. The CSC’s staging uses an 1889 Chekhov rewrite that the playwright approved for inclusion in his collected works. It was translated directly from the Russian by Carol Rocamora.
The play is problematic because central character Ivanov, as written, is an exasperating man for whom it is not easy to conjure up anything more than mild sympathy; his temperament is grounded in annoyance and indignation. When we first meet him, he seems burned out and depressed. An impoverished Russian landowner, he has a wife, Anna (Joely Richardson), whom he no longer loves and who is dying of tuberculosis. He hates and reproaches himself for his callous way with her, for his inability to love and for the invincible and persistent depression he feels. Clearly, 20th-century medical advances could have helped him out of his dark quarry.
Though he is often called the Russian Hamlet, not even Hamlet – to whom he compares himself bitterly and unfavorably – has lamented his own failures as Ivanov does. Hamlet, in his moments of wild distress, often acts rashly and violently. Ivanov does not. He just stews and festers. He waits until the play’s end to take a sudden, melodramatic action.
But like Hamlet, in some of the most remarkable speeches Chekhov ever wrote, he does expose and analyze and atomize his soul. Mr. Hawke turns one tremendous Act Two soliloquy into a virtuoso piece of acting.
Yet as brilliantly and dazzling as Mr. Hawke’s performance is in the role, it is hard to feel deeply for the man he is playing. Especially when Ivanov seems to be accosted by everyone he encounters, such as the smugly self-righteous doctor (Jonathan Marc Sherman) who tends to Ivanov’s dying wife and harangues him constantly. Even his wife verbally assaults him in one sharp denouncing scene late in the play.
Most of all, Ivanov accuses himself. His verbal flagellations occur so frequently that after a while, the suspicion arises that he enjoys them in some eerily perverse way. Probably the most interesting comment on "Ivanov" can be found in Ronald Hingley’s book on Chekhov, which says that Chekhov, a physician, was making a medical study of Ivanov and that the play should be viewed as "a medical tragedy."
Ivanov gets a brief respite when the 18-year-old Sasha (Juliet Rylance) throws herself at him momentarily and gives him some hope. But after his wife dies and he is set to marry Sasha, he can’t go through with it; he is too far gone in despair and self-loathing.
If all of this sounds pretty dreary, I must point out that not all of "Ivanov" is lamentation. Chekov surrounds the brooding Ivanov with a stage full of Russian characters who are funny, foolish, wise and brave, each one richly drawn in individuality and all of whom greatly help to lighten the atmosphere.
Ms. Richardson lends exquisite beauty and voice to the character of Anna, the dying wife. She is bitingly effective in the scene in which she denounces Ivanov. Ms. Rylance gives a lovely performance as Sasha, who, because she is young, romantic and idealistic, falls in love – or thinks she does – with this Russian Hamlet and for a while lifts his spirits and his heart.
Glenn Fitzgerald, as Borkin, the manager of Ivanov’s estate, who has robbed him and exploited his weakness, gives a bellowing, wheeling and dealing force to the play. Mr. Pendleton is touching as the crusty, vodka-loving, kindly father of Sasha, and Roberta Maxwell is officious as her penurious mother.
Ivanov’s and Lebedev’s atmospheric estate settings are by Santo Loquasto, the opulent period costumes are by Marco Piemontese and the effective moody lighting is by Keith Parham.
"Ivanov" is scheduled to run through Dec. 9 at the Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 13th St., between Third and Second Avenues. Information is available at classicstage.org.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.