One of the best kept secrets of the American theater is that Chekhov had a sense of humor. Most American productions of his plays have a weepy, gloomy quality, as if his characters, created 20 years before the Russian revolution, already knew they were doomed.
"Wild Honey," Michael Frayn's marvelous adaptation of Chekhov's first full-length play, which was never produced during his lifetime, should change this doleful image. It is full of boisterous, authentically Chekhovian comedy.
Like the later plays, "Wild Honey" is set on a country estate where people lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation.
The hero, Platonov, is a schoolteacher pursuing and pursued by virtually all of the female population. Though much of the evening is outright farce there are sober moments. "Why haven't you done better?" an old flame reproaches Platonov. "Why do we never lead the life we have it in us to lead?" he answers her.
Ian McKellen makes an irresistible shaggy dog out of Platonov, bounding into sedate rooms with a floppy, disheveled look that disconcerts everyone, frisking through the woods with an almost manic energy that keeps all his pursuers at bay. Even when his deceptions catch up with him his response has an animal excitement to it, nothing remorseful or rational.
McKellen is surrounded by superb actresses - Kathryn Walker as a mannish, determined huntress; Kate Burton as his docile, naive wife; Kim Cattrall as the elegant woman he most desires, and J. Smith-Cameron as a frustrated scientist.
The men are less convincing but Frank Maraden is strong as a cuckold, William Duff-Griffin has the proper bluster as a wealthy man and George Hall is extremely funny as a process server.
John Gunter's sets, with their white birches against an inky sky, stunningly evoke Old Russia. Christopher Morahan has staged the play with the gusto of a musical. Even if some of the comedy does not reach as far below the surface as it could, "Wild Honey" is an enormously entertaining evening.
Imagine the craziest scene of amorous desperation - four screaming wronged women, one screaming self-pitying philanderer, a few half-empty bottles of vodka, a brother, a husband, a rejected suitor, a revolver, a law messenger, and an express train waiting in the wings. Of course it's Russian.
What a strange, wicked, funny play is Michael Frayn's "Wild Honey." In a sense - more than a sense, a striking reality - it is properly speaking a play by Chekhov adapted by Frayn, but the strange thing about it is that Frayn has made it completely his own, without taking away anything from Chekhov.
The play, which was launched at Britain's National Theater two years ago, opened at the Virginia Theater last night, and is a triumph for all concerned - but particularly for Frayn, the absent Chekhov, and the highly present Ian McKellen, playing the Frayn/Chekhov hero, Platonov.
It's a terrific evening - but let's get some housekeeping historic facts behind us first before explaining how terrific.
When he was in his early 20s, Chekhov left this play - or at least its basis - in manuscript. The title-page was lost, so we don't even know what he intended to call it.
The manuscript, written in Chekhov's own hand, was discovered in a Moscow bank vault in 1920, but it was not until 1954 that it was performed - and then in Sweden in Swedish.
French and Italian productions soon followed, and in 1960 it was given in Moscow, New York and London. I missed the New York Off-Broadway production, called "A Country Scandal," but remember clearly the London version, going under the name "Platonov," starring Rex Harrison and Rachel Roberts.
I enjoyed both the play and Harrison a great deal at the time, but was unprepared for the swift certainty and authority of this new Frayn adaptation, with McKellen's blusteringly enchanting performance and Christopher Morahan's perfectly judged staging.
The thing that has to strike everyone about this play is the uncanny manner in which it presages themes and characters in the later Chekhov canon.
The country estate threatened by Russia's new entrepreneurial developers, the aimless people dreaming of lov, destiny and Russia, the shiftless hero, the flighty widow, the wife trying to poison herself, the drunken doctor - the play is like a trailer to Chekhov's dramatic future.
But Frayn has ensured that the play stands up here and now in its own right. He has avoided that specific tragi-comedy mood, where pathos blends with laughter, that we even call Chekhovian, in favor of a more directly farcical approach.
The humor was there in Chekhov to start with - it was evident enough in the Dmitri Makaroff adaptation used by George Devine and John Blatchley for Harrison - but Frayn has both broadened and sharpened it.
The play is now less like Chekhov's "Ivanov" and more like a Feydeau farce. And in the middle of it is this cosmically comic character, Platonov, one of nature's fools madly in love with love and himself, doomed like Anna Karenina to reap the steel harvest of an unhappy family.
This Platonov is a Frayn hero rather than a figure of Chekhov - simply he lacks what every properly bred Chekhov hero must have, an overdeveloped ability for introspection. The most introspective act of which Platonov is capable is to look in a mirror and weep.
Platonov apart, the characters are distinctly more Chekhovian - even if the merry widow is a little too red-blooded in her lusts for walks through the cherry orchard - but the speed of the action, the interleaving of the farce, is more like Frayn.
The director - who first staged the play for Britain's National Theater with the same design team of John Gunter for scenery and Deirdre Clancy for costumes - is Christopher Morahan, and he has made the most of the script's dichotomy, paying equal honor to the spirit that is Chekhov and the body that is Frayn.
From his first knee-bent entrance worthy of that Groucho Marxist hero, Captain Spalding, to his final careening run towards the curtain in the production's show-stopping Coup de Theatre, McKellen makes the philandering schoolmaster a rare creature of farcical reality.
Looking like an aging, ineffably hopeful faun, the man's self-absorbtion is wondrously maintained, and his charm is as monstrous, as unlikely and as wicked as his vanity.
McKellen is the puppetmaster of the play, but everyone else is fascinating - especially Kathryn Walker as the lusty widow, Kim Cattrall as the ingenue reminder of Platonov's middle-aged mortality, and Kate Burton as the loyal wife who can make long-suffering seem even longer.
The men, however, all have their moments: Frank Maraden's weeping husband is a delight, as is Franklin Cover's endearingly drunken colonel, Sullivan Brown's vacillating doctor, and Jonathan Moore's over-esthetic connoisseur of feminine grace.
This is one of the best evenings in the theater Broadway has given us over the past few years. With the new Neil Simon already on the boards, "Me and My Girl" firmly established, and "The House of Blue Leaves" safely transferred, the Broadway season is at long last looking like a season. And just in time for the holidays.
Ian McKellen is always exciting to watch, and there's a lot of him to watch in ''Wild Honey,'' Michael Frayn's ingenious new adaptation of Chekhov's first extant play. As Platonov, a village schoolmaster in provincial 19th-century Russia, the English actor spends much of the second act juggling four women (one of them his wife) while simultaneously fending off a legal action, a galloping case of the d.t.'s and a halfhearted murder attempt or two. His pants drooping, his face filthy and unshaven, his mouth gummy, Mr. McKellen has the clotted sound of James Mason's Norman Maine and looks like a derelict Pierrot on speed. If he isn't rocking in a low chair that wasn't meant to rock or undulating elastically like a human Slinky, he may well be crawling on the floor in a soiled blanket, assuming the shape of a huge mutant snail.
Mr. McKellen's bravura, athletically graceful technique provides everything except, perhaps, the thing that matters most - sustained laughter. His Platonov flirted dangerously with overkill in the initial staging of ''Wild Honey'' at London's National Theater in 1984, and, at our Virginia Theater, Gogolian exaggeration eventually crosses the line into camp. ''It's like having a performing bear in the house,'' says another character. ''Will he perform or will he maul you?'' One can't ignore the mauling, but one can explain it. Retooled with new and mostly inadequate performances in every role except Platonov for Broadway consumption, ''Wild Honey'' isn't the production it once was. Mr. McKellen finds himself in the peculiar predicament of the star who strains to carry a frail supporting cast.
There are still some real theatrical pleasures to be had. In the more modulated first act, Mr. McKellen makes us feel for his vacillating, at times Hamlet-like protagonist. A quintessentially Russian ''superfluous man,'' Platonov was a once-promising ''second Byron'' who has long since declined into bitter indolence. Rebuked by life, he takes revenge by mocking the men and toying with the women of the suffocating ''mudhole'' where he is sentenced to await his ''shuffling old age.'' As he says, ''The only stories that end happily are those that don't have me in them.'' When Mr. McKellen, in dandy's attire gone to seed, pumps up his chalky voice and flushes his face to pledge undying devotion to women he transparently doesn't love, a shabby rural Don Juan achieves the pathos of a brilliant, neurotically self-conscious casualty of terminal alienation.
The characterization is given further focus by Mr. Frayn's translation. When Chekhov wrote the play generally known as ''Platonov'' - which was discovered, minus title page, well after his death - he was barely Chekhov yet. A professional humorist of at most 21, he had still not produced his greatest stories and was roughly 15 years away from ''The Sea Gull,'' the first major play. ''Wild Honey'' isn't the only distillation of Chekhov's unwieldy early effort, but it may be the most economical and witty. Even Mr. Frayn, a master of theatrical construction (''Noises Off'') and Chekhovian nuance (''Benefactors''), cannot turn a journeyman's work into the masterpiece it sometimes prefigures (''The Cherry Orchard''). Yet the adapter has achieved his goal, as stated in his published introduction, of making ''a text for production'' rather than ''an academic contribution or a pious tribute.''
Let academics have fun detailing, applauding or deploring the transpositions, telescopings, elisions and outright alterations Mr. Frayn has made in the original work. What's fascinating about ''Wild Honey'' is how elegantly the embryonic Chekhovian cartography pops into relief. One finds the dithering intellectuals, about-to-be-dispossessed gentry, rising merchants and discontented peasants of the later plays. More important, one can taste the despair of characters who ''live under dust covers like the furniture'' and regard the fruitless present as an absurd punishment to be endured until it ''mercifully becomes the past.'' What's missing in ''Wild Honey,'' as Mr. Frayn has pointed out, is the resolution of its tone into ''a characteristic Chekhovian mode.'' The play swings between the poles of farce and tragedy instead of merging them.
If ''Wild Honey'' is to emit some of that exquisite Chekhovian feeling, it must receive acting as delicate as that demanded by the mature Chekhov plays. Christopher Morahan, the director, has miscast or misdirected most of his company; the sloppiness extends to the routine matters of establishing consistent accents and filling roles with performers of the appropriate age. Though there are some good American actors on hand, Mr. Morahan can send the best of them dashing hysterically about like the backwater English touring troupe that Mr. Frayn parodied in ''Noises Off.''
Some figures on the play's country estate (the horse thief Osip, the retired Colonel Triletzky) are performed so colorlessly that they call attention to loopholes in the adaptation, making us yearn for the complete text to fill in the blanks. More damaging still is the burlesque presentation of the other characters' quixotic struggles for happiness. In the long final scene, a succession of unrequited lovers take to sobbing once they haplessly stumble upon the sorry ruins of their best plans and hopes for ''a new life.'' This being Chekhov, the ridiculously ineffectual crying jags can be funny as well as touching expressions of the futility of existence - but only if they are first presented truthfully, as cries of real pain. It's typical of Mr. Morahan's staging that he has his actors all bawl crocodile tears, thereby turning Chekhov's people into mechanical clowns and eviscerating them as victims of either tragedy or farce.
The only important exceptions to the prevailing air of artifice are Kate Burton, who conveys the devastation of Platonov's betrayed young wife, and William Duff-Griffin, whose wealthy merchant is a veritable porcupine of nouveau-riche prickliness. The company's most crucial disappointment is the gifted Kathryn Walker, whose one-note portrayal of the alluring Anna Petrovna, ''an educated woman with nothing to do,'' is an actressy exercise in throaty vocal mannerisms. Mr. Frayn picked the title ''Wild Honey'' because of the play's hothouse erotic tensions, but where is the spark between Ms. Walker (or any of the women) and Mr. McKellen?
In place of the essential sexual and psychic atmosphere, there is gorgeous scenic atmosphere designed by the redoubtable John Gunter: knee-high Russian grass, a forest of birch trees, a real moving train on its real track. Then again, ''Wild Honey,'' which might have surveyed an emerging Chekhovian forest of humanity, is now itself a vehicle - a star vehicle. One can only admire Mr. McKellen's always galvanic, sometimes successful efforts to prevent it from running off its rails.