The Present on Broadway Reviewed

(Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Platonov)

There’s lots of action along with music in The Present (including The Clash before each act and the odd Europop sensation, Haddaway), drinking, dancing, and Blanchett, in one scene, pulling off her black bra before firing a shotgun into the air (multiple times). So, if you think you’re in for nothing but dialogue, think again! The play takes place at a country home on the protagonist Maria’s fortieth birthday. Maria (played by Cate Blanchett) is the widow of a character dubbed “the General” and is worried about losing the country home they shared. You can currently see The Present on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre but you’ll have to hurry: it only runs until the nineteenth of March.

The setting is Russia in the mid-nineties and is filled with angst and longing (post-Perestroika politics are touched upon very briefly, mostly by the character of Sophia when she decides that she and Mikhail belong together and must leave Russia, but it’s mostly personal, inner turmoil that floods the stage). Richard Roxburgh plays the role of Mikhail, a married school teacher who is never satisfied and still deeply in love with Blanchett’s widowed Maria; even though the love is reciprocated, they both know that life has become too complicated for them to be together.

The Present is a vehicle fueled with vodka, sex, frustration and gunshots. This is Cate Blanchett’s Broadway debut if you can believe it: with all the theatre that she’s been involved in, it’s hard to imagine this as a first. Blanchett and her husband, playwright Andrew Upton were co-artistic directors for The Sydney Theater Company from 2008 to 2012 and are well-versed in the world of Chekhovian despair and longing (Blanchett starred in their production of Uncle Vanya in 2012). Upton adapted Anton Chekhov’s first play, Platonov into a shorter, more modern version of the originally three hundred (or so) page piece that was written in 1878 but remained unpublished until 1923.

The theme of the play is basically a mid-life crisis. The two main characters both seem to be having one: they love each other but can’t be together because it seems too complicated yet Mikhail (Roxburgh) also wants every woman on the stage (sexually). He can’t help himself and beds two women other than his wife (who has recently given birth to their infant son). He makes promises to an old flame, Sophia (who is married to Maria’s stepson, Sergei) and ends up paying the ultimate price when he can’t—or won’t—deliver. Personally, Acts II and IV are the most enjoyable to watch as the first act uses a lot of time introducing us to the characters (it can be a bit confusing who’s who since these characters all intertwine and have history with one another).

The Present is basically a web where its characters experience all of the regret, restlessness and uncertainty that Chekhov wrote so well. Directed by John Crowley (who also directed the 2015 film Brooklyn), this play will make you laugh at all the rollicking drunkenness and explosions (literally) and, as soon as you think you’ve gotten it figured out, cry because of the desperation that is so palpably portrayed by all of the characters. At the end of the nearly three hour production of The Present, I was mostly in awe of Blanchett and her effortlessness and playfulness on stage (at one point she pours a bottle of booze on her head while she dances atop the birthday dinner table) but also impressed by Richard Roxburgh and how entertaining he makes unhappiness seem. Even though these characters are miserable, we still want to have dinner with them.