Saturday, March 25, 2023
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The Present - 3 hour Sydney Theatre Company production starring Cate Blanchett & Richard Roxburgh lumbers along on Broadway

Oscar E. Moore “from the rear mezzanine” for Talk

Some prefer their Chekhov straight up or neat as has been the traditional way of performing his classic tragi-comedies in the past. Not so for Andrew Upton who has taken on Chekhov’s very early and lengthy draft of a play called Platonov – fiddling around with it, updating it to a post-perestroika Russia (mid 1990’s) and honing it down to a mere three hours.

Which brings us to THE PRESENT that is served on the rocks (anything but neat) starring his beautiful and extremely talented wife Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in the Sydney Theatre Company production now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through March 19th - although there is plenty of wine and vodka being imbibed on stage – most probably to help the ensemble of fine actors stagger through this overlong and confusing production.

There are two acts consisting of two scenes each. It deteriorates progressively. You may spend the first scene of Act I (the longest) trying to figure out who these characters are and what their relationships are to each other or as I noticed a few seats away someone just nodding back and nodding out until the loud music was blasted signaling the change of scene. It’s quite baffling.

On the way home via subway a couple across from me were chatting about THE PRESENT going back and forth in their program to the faces and the characters they portrayed. Yes, they were trying to figure it all out. I asked them.

So I decided to do some research myself. Time consuming and in reality it didn’t make much of a difference. It’s not a very good play. It rambles on and on. Some characters are never explained - they just show up. Others go missing. And so our minds are trying to sort things out while we listen intently as to the plight of Anna Petrovna (just plain Anna in the Playbill – Cate) who is turning 40 and is hosting a birthday party for herself and the aforementioned confusing cast of characters.

Does anyone remember Helen Trent (radio soap opera) who had similar problems coping with turning 35!

Anna has two wealthy older suitors as the estate she is visiting and hosting said party has a cash flow problem. She inherited it after the death of her husband 7 years ago. Instead of a cherry orchard there is a weedy lake. There are guns. There are long boring speeches. Anna is bored, preoccupied and anxious. Who can blame her?

A spark of an old relationship is rekindled. Mikhail (Mr. Roxburgh) a womanizer with a capital W - who is now married to a frumpy Sasha (Susan Prior with a newborn in the next room) but still pursuing Anna and Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie) who is married to a meek Sergei (Chris Ryan - Anna’s stepson) and Maria (Anna Bamford) girl friend of Nikolai (Toby Schmitz) AND most probably the cook.

After the second scene of Act I which dissolves into a dance on top of the table, frenzied sexual explosion we have an intermission where some audience members leave never to return. And so they miss the Act II scene in hell with Mr. Roxburgh meeting up with various characters surrounded by mist or fog or remnants of the fire where there is the worst fight scene I have ever witnessed on stage. Or is it real? Or is he having hallucinations? Do we really care? And then finally the last scene, staged as a farce. There you have it.

If you absolutely need to see Cate Blanchett in the flesh be forewarned. She is lovely but the play itself isn’t.

Mr. Roxburgh does have a charm about him. But Mikhail is a braggart and a drunk. And Mr. Roxburgh goes a bit overboard enacting such. One wonders how Mikhail can get it up so often and for so many in his inebriated state. The women all seem to fall under his spell or at the very least his body during this birthday bash.

Directed by John Crowley who does little to clarify or enlighten this lumbering production. Scenic and costume design (Alice Babidge) are serviceable.

Photo: Joan Marcus

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