Here’s one way to evaluate a production of Chekhov: do characters who speak incessantly of boredom bore the audience? With the off-Broadway staging of Ivanov at the Classic Stage Company the answer is no. Led by a compelling if sometimes excessively emphatic performance by Ethan Hawke in the title role, and a cohesive ensemble under the direction of Austin Pendleton, the evening manages to dispel most of the drama’s celebrated ennui.
A good thing, too, since the plot itself does not suffice to sustain much interest. In 1880s Russia, Ivanov – a poor, monstrously melancholic landowner whose wife, Anna, unknowingly suffers from consumption – is caught embracing Sasha, the daughter of wealthy neighbours, at the end of act two. Oddly, the next scene skips to Lebedev, the well-fixed neighbour, speaking with the elderly Count Matthew Shabelsky, Ivanov’s uncle, about food.
It is not only the culinary banter that is delicious here. George Morfogen, as the count, delivers his recollection of past repasts with a mordant delight that lifts the entire evening. I retain almost no memory of this actor in Pendleton’s previous, well-received Chekhov productions at CSC. In Ivanov, however, the black-clad Morfogen scuttles across the scene like an upright beetle. He punctures pomposity: when Lvov, a doctor who likes to moralise about Ivanov’s inattention to his wife, exits the stage, the count harrumphs: “He has an annihilating glance.”
In truth, the production, which makes the play seem almost subtext-free, needs such skewering. The title character exhausts our goodwill before uttering a word, and his endless prating about his unhappiness should serve to repel the attentions of any woman. But Anna, the touching Joely Richardson, is long-suffering, and Sasha, the assured Juliet Rylance, is the classic example of the young woman who thinks she’s capable of fixing an older man.
Hawke attacks the title role with typical gusto. Striking a series of silly poses, he mocks the fact that some people see his character as “a kind of alienated Hamlet”. The actor brings a contemporary flavour to Ivanov. In fact, he has done this with all his period roles – most indelibly with the Russian revolutionary Bakunin in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. I worry that Hawke taxes his gravelly voice unduly with all his epic assignments. A little technical reserve would be welcome.