When a very great playwright wrote very few plays, there is an almost irresistible urge to pretend that they were all wonderful. Anton Chekhov's four major plays are so good that it is tantalizing to imagine there might be another one out there, just waiting for the right touch to bring it to life. "Ivanov," Chekhov's first complete play, written when he was 26, is the usual suspect. The fine English playwright David Hare, whose adaptation is the basis for this production, argues that it is not worse than the great works of Chekhov's maturity, just different. But in fact the most obvious difference is that between "Ivanov" and a good play.
In a great work like "The Cherry Orchard," Chekhov brings farce and tragedy together so seamlessly that we can't say at any moment which of them we are watching. When he wrote "Ivanov," he hadn't yet discovered how to do this. The farce and the tragedy are there, but they sit side by side. And even an actor of Kevin Kline's undoubted power can't manage to put them together.
To be fair to Chekhov, not all the problems in this production are of his making. One of them is that director Gerald Gutierrez has not come up with a way of dealing with the play's frequent use of actors addressing the audience. When this happens here, the actors seem vaguely embarrassed, unsure where to look, uncertain whether they are talking to themselves or to us.
The other problem, surprisingly, is with Hare's adaptation. His use of language swings between the overly casual ("sack the little bugger") and the overly formal ("It is I who am shocked"). And this makes it hard to imagine these characters as belonging to a particular class in a specific society.
In a stronger play, none of this would prevent an actor of Kline's stature from creating a compelling performance. But here the title role is already a fierce challenge. Ivanov is a once-idealistic landowner who has married a Jewish woman. Now, he is sunk in an apathy that makes him by turns coldly cruel and a whining bore. He is the same at the end of the play as he is at the start.
It needs much more than capable acting to make such a role work, and here Kline is never more than capable. Because his Ivanov never takes fire, the focus shifts to the farcical and satiric elements of the play.
Gutierrez stages the set pieces a grotesque party, an abortive wedding quite brilliantly. Within them, there are beautifully precise performances from Jayne Atkinson, Marian Seldes and Hope Davis as the women on the receiving end of Ivanov's mania, and a hilarious yet poignant one from Max Wright as a hapless old man trying to make sense of it all.
Yet when even such fine talents can't save "Ivanov," it must be time to ask whether there were not good reasons for its status as Chekhov's lost play.
Traditionally it is clowns who long to play Hamlet. The eponymous hero of Chekhov's early play "Ivanov" is seemingly a Hamlet who is forced to play a clown.
Kevin Kline, one of the world's most versatile and accomplished actors, is a performer of commanding subtlety. All the same, in David Hare's new adaptation of Chekhov's play, which opened last night, he seems stuck in a portrayal not entirely of his own making.
Kline's characterization appears lodged in a world slightly different from all the activity carrying on wildly about him. This Ivanov is made the humorless butt of the play rather than its linchpin. This may partly be a fault of Chekhov, of Hare's attitudinized adaptation of the good doctor's play, or possibly of director Gerald Gutierrez's uncertain staging.
Chekhov's play - it was his first and, to be kind, has had a life that can only be called checkered - is an oddly ironic mix of farce, melodrama and tragedy.
Presumably the young playwright, who had been commissioned to write a comedy, wanted to show the crosscurrents of life that permit, say, the farce of a banana skin to lead so suddenly to a man becoming a paraplegic.
It's that old story: In the midst of life's comedy, etc., etc. Add character, hubris and shake well. A young playwright's concept, perhaps, but it did well enough for William Shakespeare, Sean O'Casey and quite a few others.
Ivanov is a penniless, irresolute, morally exhausted, middle-aged Russian landowner, with liberal tendencies, in the late 1880s. His Jewish wife, a disinherited heiress, is dying of tuberculosis.
Her condition worsens when she discovers that Ivanov has fallen in love with the young daughter of a rich neighbor, to whom Ivanov owes a large sum of money. Upon the wife's death, Ivanov agrees to marry the young woman - until the metaphorical banana-skin drops, permitting farce and melodrama to intervene.
Hare apparently has developed a theory that the play is about the question "What is honesty?" As Hare admits, "Plays are about 5,000 different things, but you choose which of them to bring out." Personally, I think he's made a poor choice.
He sees as the crux of the play the confrontation between Ivanov's own uneasy search for honesty and the questionable, priggish honesty of young Dr. Lvov, the dying wife's physician, who regards Ivanov as a scoundrel.
Hare, Gutierrez and Rob Campbell, the actor playing - rather poorly - Lvov, now conspire to make Lvov the villain of the piece. Yet Chekhov himself wrote that "Lvov is honest, direct ... it is dishonest to portray him in caricature merely to heighten the dramatic interest."
Yet this is precisely what this production does. And the dramatic interest is not heightened. Quite the reverse.
Where Hare's adaptation is strong is in the fresh fluency of the dialogue. Yes, it's good to have a real playwright at the helm of a translation, and one who pulls no punches in its delineation of Russian anti-Semitism and in the characterizations of the lesser roles.
And it is here that Gutierrez's staging also finds its proper measure. He is splendid in the details: a frozen party supervised by a mercenary hostess, a drunken meeting, a wedding ceremony gone scandalously awry.
Catherine Zuber's costumes catch time and place on the wing, and John Lee Beatty's highly Russian setting does its best with the Beaumont stage, although the play itself shouts out piteously for a smaller space and a conventional proscenium.
Yet the actors are mostly excellent, particularly Robert Foxworth as an amusingly decayed and virulent small-town aristocrat; Max Wright as a henpecked alcoholic; and Tom McGowan as Ivanov's gregarious steward, a hale fellow fairly well met.
As for Kline, crossing the uneven grain of the adaptation, he doesn't really come into his own until after the intermission. Then he gathers together the proper shabby integrity and wavering strength right up to the shocking curtain, and he is finally and very gloriously himself.
Attention, acting students. How would you read this line: ''We're so tired''? Now remember, you're a disaffected, middle-aged man who has just said that your energy and your illusions have all been spent, and, though you're speaking in the first person plural, it's your own scooped-out, selfish self you're describing. And, yes, the character was created by Chekhov.
Well, as Kevin Kline, making a most welcome return to the New York stage in the title role of ''Ivanov'' at Lincoln Center, delivers this announcement of spiritual fatigue, it's in a loud, threatening growl that suggests a pit bull that has been chained and unfed for far too long.
This character from the pen of the 27-year-old Chekhov may be smothered by tedium. But when Mr. Kline's Ivanov considers his weariness, there's not a shred of languor in his voice. Instead, he pulses with the spleen and indignation of someone personally insulted by life's failure to be interesting. Bored this Ivanov may be; listless he is definitely not.
Mr. Kline's star presence has always involved an engaging contradiction: a mixture of regal poise and subversive vitality. Onstage, he seems happiest in a state of commanding restlessness, as an antically insane Hamlet or a swashbuckling brigand in ''The Pirates of Penzance.'' And on film, even when he's playing it stiff, there's a twitchy demon struggling to get out. (The process is hilariously reflected in his hit movie, ''In and Out,'' in which his sexually repressed character succumbs to the seductive rhythms of a disco song.)
Now Mr. Kline is finding the antsiness in Chekhovian ennui. And if the results fall short of the complete emotional portrait the play demands, there is no denying their vibrancy or the discipline and intelligence behind them. His Ivanov, a 40-year-old estate owner who has fallen out of love with his wife, his land and his friends, is struggling against a ticking clock of apathy. As he repeatedly asks questions, of himself and of anyone else, about why he is as he is, it's with a ravenous, life-and-death urgency that is both comic and tragically serious.
Gerald Gutierrez's entertaining, if unbalanced, production, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, is similarly rooted in paradox, at its best in locating the liveliness in being bored. Ivanov isn't the only character suffering from a serious case of inertia. All the others are practically fainting from the disease, as they are more than happy to tell you.
But the ways in which they do so are anything but inert. ''Oooh, I can't live without exercise,'' says Borkin (Tom McGowan), the unscrupulous steward of Ivanov's estate, who proceeds to bounce into a series of jumping jacks before a sour soiree made up of card players and gossips. In the same scene, a rich young widow (Judith Hawking) does her own little aerobic dance, while proclaiming: ''Oh my God! What a bore! What a bore it all is!''
Such activity does not, by the way, violate the tone of ''Ivanov,'' the first of Chekhov's completed full-length plays. While its author's later and finer dramas of disillusionment are in a gentler and more consistent key, ''Ivanov'' moves in fits and starts. Unlike the ruminating characters of, say, ''The Three Sisters,'' who are mostly borne passively on the current of time, the people in ''Ivanov'' are as aggressively restless and sullen as teen-agers in a classroom on the last day of school.
David Hare, the English playwright and the adapter behind the punchy text used here, has said that ''Ivanov'' must be considered on its own terms, as a product of youthful exuberance and artistic rebellion. (''I wanted to be original,'' Chekhov wrote to his brother of the work. ''I did not portray a single villain or a single angel.'') But while there has been increased interest in the play, which was recently given a widely acclaimed production in London starring Ralph Fiennes, it remains a hard nut to crack.
The line between comedy and drama is famously fuzzy in Chekhov, but none of his completed plays swing as wildly from farce to melodrama as ''Ivanov'' does. Mr. Gutierrez, perhaps inevitably, hasn't been able to provide the delectable smoothness he brought to his revivals of ''The Heiress'' and ''A Delicate Balance.''
He has, however, guided his actors into many very funny moments and a few extraordinarily moving ones. If he hasn't built a convincing bridge between these extremes, he and his ensemble almost always hold the attention. They are, moreover, nicely set off by John Lee Beatty's sets (although one could do without the visual cliche of the birch copse of the opening scene) and Catherine Zuber's costumes, all of of which manage to combine visual appeal with a distinct whiff of decay.
And in addition to Mr. Kline's charismatic center, this production is blessed with two performances of remarkable finesse and, in very different ways, remarkable power: from Jayne Atkinson, as Ivanov's neglected, tubercular wife, who gave up Judaism to marry him, and from Max Wright as a henpecked local councilman.
In creating the character of Ivanov, Chekhov intended to debunk the romantic figure of the superfluous man, the part Hamlet, part Byronic hero much in vogue then in Russian literature. Accordingly, Chekhov makes it very clear that Ivanov is only destructive in his self-absorption. The playwright doesn't judge him, but he makes no apologies for him.
The plot, such as it is, hinges on Ivanov's hold on two women who are as annoyed by him as they are fascinated: his wife, Anna Petrovna (Ms. Atkinson), and the young and feisty Sasha (a lovely looking Hope Davis). There is also the prickly, double-edge relationship between the title character and Lvov (Rob Campbell), the self-righteous doctor who reminds Ivanov of his younger self. But mostly the play is a concert of complaints.
Mr. Gutierrez heightens the implicit social satire and finds the fun in the whinefest, especially when the production visits the house of Pavel and Zinaida Lebedev (Mr. Wright and Marian Seldes), where the local gentry gather to bicker about one another's card playing and their hostess's famous stinginess. Some of the performances, including that of an often funny Ms. Seldes, need to be toned down. And Mr. Campbell's Lvov simply hasn't found a character: he's all somber, sad-sack rigidity, bringing to mind Edward Gorey's uninvited guest.
Mr. Kline is excellent when his Ivanov, ever in pursuit of self-definition, avidly picks up Lvov's priggish criticisms as though they were a mirror. But he's acting for two here. And without a persuasive Lvov, it's impossible to understand fully the play's violent climax.
Not that there's any doubting the potential for violence in Mr. Kline's Ivanov, who holds his large, white hands away from his body, fingers splayed, as though they were instruments that had outlived all uses except self-destruction. The performance is a little too tight and measured for its own good, however. The monologues sound beautiful but lack shading: you see the splenetic fire but not the burned-out ashes, and Ivanov seems more a tourist in hell than a permanent resident.
Mr. Kline nonetheless gives full power to the production's most shocking moment, when Ivanov addresses the dying Anna as ''a dirty Jew.'' And the self-lacerating cruelty in the way Ivanov's body stiffens in rejection when Anna embraces him is devastating.
The actor is also most fortunate in his partner in these scenes. Since her appearance in Caryl Churchill's ''Skriker'' two seasons ago, Ms. Atkinson has emerged as an actress of an emotional luminousness and depth that, among her American contemporaries, are rivaled only by those of Cherry Jones. Here she is splendid as an intelligent woman trying to believe that she is not dying and that her husband still loves her. And she wears coquettishness like a slipping shawl over bottomless anxiety and anger.
Then there is the astonishing Mr. Wright, who walks the line between farce and pathos like a high-wire artist and finds a continuity of tone that is finally beyond the play itself. His Lebedev scurries between upright vehemence and hunched apology, torn between tentative advances and quick retreats.
When Mr. Wright's character says of his wife, ''I wish to God you'd just . . . die,'' with a rage underscored by a feeling of utter powerlessness, you may be equally disposed to laugh or cry, depending upon your mood that night. That, of course, is the way Chekhov is supposed to make you feel.
Kevin Kline leads the formidable charge to pin down Chekhov's elusive problem play "Ivanov," but despite the efforts of teammates David Hare and Gerald Gutierrez, no clear victories are made.
Plagued with a passive central character and an unrelenting tone of self-pity, "Ivanov" was Chekhov's first full-length play in 1889 and, today, among his most infrequently produced. Hare's crisp, contemporary translation, Gutierrez's comic direction and Kline's flip, offhand approach to the title character struggle to bring some breeze to this melancholy work, ultimately to little advantage. "Ivanov" remains a tedious affair, doubly disappointing since it marks Kline's return to the New York stage following his acclaimed perfs in the films "In & Out" and "The Ice Storm."Chekhov's insistence that his plays were meant to be comic is taken to heart in this production. Characters are broadly drawn, dialogue delivered with the punch of comic timing, and even the final suicide scene is, until the last few seconds, played nearly as farce. It's a legitimate approach, even interesting, but the material supports the style only occasionally, stranding "Ivanov" in a Siberia between comedy and melodrama.
Kline plays a penniless Russian landowner tormented with guilt because he's fallen out of love with wife Anna (Jayne Atkinson), who's dying of tuberculosis. The fragile marriage (and Anna's Jewishness) is a continual source of gossip among the couple's circle of bored Russian gentry, a group that, among others, includes a self-righteous young doctor (Rob Campbell), a greedy, viperish society matron (Marian Seldes), her hapless, goodhearted husband (Max Wright) and their daughter (Hope Davis), a firebrand infatuated with the gloomy Ivanov.
With "Ivanov," Chekhov had yet to perfect his repartee-as-plot technique, providing little momentum to the endless drawing-room chats that, however well performed here, still seem, well, endless. Gutierrez injects as much vitality as the text allows (perhaps even more so), at one point having a drawing-room guest demonstrate a rigorous exercise routine. The snipish gossip is rendered with snap, and Hare's translation --- a milquetoast husband at one point tells his shrewish wife to "drop dead" --- is sharply modern.
The brisk style goes some way toward glossing over the play's problems, and some of the secondary performers (particularly Seldes and Wright) hit their comic targets. But Kline, never better than when he's doing light comedy, is adrift here, his quick-paced delivery lending the character neither gravitas nor comic lunacy. Ivanov's suicide is likely to leave audiences as unmoved as it does the world-weary aristocrats.
As usual, Lincoln Center Theater has given this outing an attractive physical production, including John Lee Beatty's earth-toned woodlands and well-appointed drawing room and Catherine Zuber's pretty costumes. All dressed up, "Ivanov" still goes nowhere.