Considering that Chekhov's main themes were indolence, complacency, and human folly, Americans often find him a sticky wicket. His language, once it's translated from the Russian, is more accessible than Shakespeare's, and, for a classic, he's definitely got the edge on the Greeks when it comes to pistol-waving and funny business with dogs. But somehow, Chekhov brings out the snob in most theater-makers - they clam up behind his vaunted reputation and issue portentous productions to make even Meryl Streep look like a fuddy-duddy.
At the Atlantic, a new adaptation by Tom Donaghy tries to restore Chekhov's reputation as a funnyman, quick with the pratfalls and the oneliners. The text works well - little nods to modern usage (the occasional "hi" or "okay") somehow don't violate its period sense. The chuckles come at a cost, though, since only a few of the actors negotiate their tragicomic territory with grace. The others find themselves picking comedy over tragedy, not blending them as they ought - making the evening feel thin. Jokes land but the pathos floats by; notes of individual need sound clearly, but the chords necessary for romantic relationships don't play at all.
Despite the brisk running time, it's a dreamy show, with pastel outfits and gauze walls evoking dazed summer heat. In a way, the dramaturg, adaptor, and director have succeeded too well. In throwing away the heavy preconceptions from productions past, they toss all the ballast out of their balloon. It makes for a fun and breezy flight, but not one that necessarily has enough to do with this solid earth of ours.
In an image that has long since become synonymous with vanishing tradition, a beautiful cherry orchard stands outside a handsome, but penniless, Russian estate. Progress, the industrial age, and the decay of the aristocracy all threaten the rows of trees: Their pointless splendour stands in the way of bourgeois development. Certainly, owner Madame Ranevskaya (Brooke Adams) can't be counted on to save anything, frittering money away on lovers and importunate friends. Though her return from Paris is cause for celebration, it will likely also be her farewell.
She and her brother Leonid (Larry Bryggman) grew up on the property - their first sentimental entrance takes place in the dusty nursery - so they shrink from money-scrimping schemes to save it. A neighbor, Lopakhin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) suggests they lease the unused orchard to save themselves from repossession and the auction block, but the option is too tacky to consider.
Chekhov captures the moment when the old world was bumpily becoming the new, with modernism just starting to bully its way onstage. Ranevskaya's daughters, the prudish, jumpy Varya (Diana Ruppe) and idealistic Anya (Laura Breckinridge) consider matches well below them, postmen dance at parties once attended by generals, and the servants cheekily drink champagne. The butler Firs (Alvin Epstein) - the only remnant of the forgotten hierarchical ways - won't live to see the final curtain, a fate he cheerfully predicts to whomever will listen.
Mr. Epstein, a pearl of great price, single-handedly sets the tone the rest of the production should follow. Everything he does is both funny and touching, from chastising a maid ("Put it on the table! That's what it's for!") to hobbling painfully after his 60-year-old master, brandishing a forgotten coat. His equal, Mr. Bryggman's Leonid, responds perfectly to Firs's reproachful mutterings, shaking his floppy hair and getting himself in a kerfuffle. These two pictures of folly - recognizable, lovable, and immensely frustrating - do Chekhov's careful portraiture justice.
Director Scott Zigler maintains a light touch throughout, mainly contenting himself with adorable bits of business involving a row of collapsing suitcases. In his one loud gesture, he casts an African-American actor as Lopakhin, the son of serfs who advises and then supplants the mighty family. Mr. Whitlock, though, fails to find any of Lopakhin's complexity, not the sweetness or the mania that other characters observe in him. Mr. Zigler's point, that American society is bound by a class system, is lost in Mr. Whitlock's muddy, inconstant performance.
The production, sweet and light on its feet, has a dated quality - not dating back to Chekhov's turn of the century, but rather to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Squint a bit, imagine Scott Pask's cucumber-green set in black and white, and the whole shebang could be a goof from Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. Brooke Adams smiles with the hungry edginess of a fading starlet, and though she hops abruptly between emotional states, she does beautifully once she is in them. Quelling Scott Foley's sullen Trofimov (itself a self-effacing, attractive performance), she finally finds a bit of magnificence. Standing tall in her silver shoes, she shouts, "You child! You boy, you impotent, aging, worthless virgin! What can you tell me?" It's a quick moment of pain and awfulness in a production that could have used more of them.
Until July 3 (336 W. 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, 212-645-1242).