‘The Cherry Orchard’ Review: Chekhov in the Fun Zone

When Anton Chekhov wrote “The Cherry Orchard,” his 1904 play about a financially beleaguered aristocratic household in turn-of-the-century Russia, he thought of it as a comedy. Generations of theater directors — starting with Konstantin Stanislavsky in its original Moscow run — had other ideas, preferring to render it as a somber tragedy. In London, a new production sets out to do justice to the playwright’s vision by leaning in to the play’s comedic elements.

Directed by Benedict Andrews, an Australian based in Iceland who had London hits with “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the show runs at the Donmar Warehouse through June 22. It is a funny and, at times, raucous take which, despite some flaws, breathes new life into this old classic.

The German actress Nina Hoss gives a controlled performance as Ranevskaya, who returns to her family estate after a grief-stricken exile to find its residents depressed and broke. She is a poignant picture of frayed dignity, her aristocratic self-possession increasingly brittle as the story progresses toward it sad denouement. But the real star of the show is Adeel Akhtar (“Murder Mystery”) as Lopakhin, the rapacious self-made magnate who persuades Ranevskaya to put the estate’s prize jewel, her beloved cherry orchard, up for auction.

Hoss with Adeel Akhtar, who plays Lopakhin, the businessman who convinces Ranevskaya to put her orchard up for auction.Credit…Johan Persson

Akhtar renders Lopakhin as a cockney wheeler-dealer, by turns chummy and aggressive, whose brazen acquisitiveness is tempered by a raffish charm — he is fond of corny catchphrases like “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya” — and moments of humanity. A peasant’s son, he has transcended his origins but remains acutely conscious of them. (He tells us he is ashamed of his handwriting because it gives him away.) Despite Lopakhin’s almost cartoonish cynicism, we can’t help but like him, even when he buys up the orchard himself, intending to tear it down and turn it into a lucrative tourist resort.

Michael Gould (“A View from the Bridge”) is outstanding as Ranevskaya’s brother, Gaev, the epitome of aristocratic dissipation as he pads about the stage in baggy sweatpants, sucking on a lollipop while delivering eccentric disquisitions. There are some eye-catching performances among the minor characters, too. June Watson is delightful as the octogenarian servant Firs, who is forever mumbling away to herself, semi-audibly, in irritable tones. And Eanna Hardwicke makes a brilliantly funny stage debut as the bookkeeper Epikhodov, whose clownishly squeaky shoes undermine the authority of his every utterance (most notably when he declares “I’m, quote-unquote, intellectually insatiable”).

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