At the start The Sydney Theatre Company production of “The Present,” Andrew Upton’s modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s early play “Platonov,” the ambience doesn’t seem very Russian, especially with scenic designer Alice Babidge’s modern version of a Russian country house. But when a birthday party fueled by plenty of vodka gets tumultuous and the characters begin complaining about their lives, the drama starts to look more convincingly Russian.
The play also begins to be explosively entertaining, given that party is meant to celebrate the 40th birthday of Anna, who is played by Cate Blanchett. She is a marvel to watch as she looks terribly bored at the insipid conversation and philosophical pronouncements uttered by the unhappy Russians. Blanchett has a startling stage moment as her boredom leads her to reach inside her dress, remove her bra and toss it on the floor, a hilarious gesture.
As the party gets increasingly out of hand, Anna has a fabulous scene as she rises from her listening and begins to shout her views and rage. She leaps onto the long table, and unleashes the party into music-accompanied madness, with couples throwing off inhibitions and dancing erotically in fornicating positions as the musical beat pounds away.
As for the ensuing plot, it involves various characters trying to untangle old relationships and start new ones, with deception running rampant. The supporting cast members are excellent, and in addition to the pleasure of watching the very watchable Blanchett demonstrating the meaning of good acting, there is the added attraction of Richard Roxburgh as Mikhail, who knew Anna before she married a famous general, who has since died.
Sexual feelings are displayed between Mikhail and Anna, but there is also ambivalence. Mikhail gets busy with eyeing other women as he drinks and drinks and demonstrates his irresponsible attitudes and behavior. It is a strong role for Roxburgh and he makes the most of it on the road to becoming a tragic figure.
John Crowley’s direction is spirited, with some effective lighting and other effects. The play itself, while sampling Chekhov’s talent, lacks the impact of his later achievements. Still, there is plenty on stage to hold one’s interest, although one can question the concept of modernization, with all of the use of the f word, blatant behavior and body movement that seem more now than Chekhovian.
However, this is a fine opportunity to see Blanchett and Roxburgh at work, admire the efforts of the Sydney Theatre Company and evaluate this unusual interpretation of an early work by the great Russian dramatist. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.