‘The Cherry Orchard': If Only Money Grew on Trees

Diane Lane made her debut on Broadway four decades ago in Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Now, she’s back for the first time since, starring in an updated version, with a text by rising playwright Stephen Karam, of “The Humans.”

Roundabout’s alternately despairing and giddy production, on the boards at the American Airlines Theatre, preserves Chekov’s setting and uses period-ish costuming, while adding modern phrasing that doesn’t always sound natural coming from the fine actors who’ve signed on.

“She’s easygoing, you know,” says businessman Lopakhin (the dynamic Harold Perrineau), when he hears about the impending return of Lane’s declining aristocrat Lyubov Ranevskaya to her ancestral estate.

As “The Cherry Orchard” unfolds, Lyubov has returned to Russia from France for the first time in the 5 years since her son’s death. She’s been burning through her family’s remaining cash, and on her homecoming learns the estate is poised for auction, to boot.

Lane, wonderful last year in Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway “The Mysteries of Love & Sex,” is dressed in furs and gowns as the obliviously magnanimous aristocrat who wants to make everyone happy, throwing coins she can't spare at beggars if it will help avoid an ugly scene. Within the casual constraints of the play, Lane portrays a coherent character, and a sad one, at that.

Lyubov and her brother, Leonid (the boundlessly charismatic John Glover), cherish their orchard most. Lopakhin, who has worked hard and saved money, encourages the brother and sister with great sincerity to chop it down and build cottages on the land—the income would allow them to save their property. But Lyubov and Leonid will have nothing of it.

I’ll argue that Perrineau gives the most interesting performance. A common approach has Lopakhin as rather a villain, but here he comes across as a man trying to help the family maintain ownership of their assets, not to mention their dignity. When he buys the property, they feel betrayed, but we can't blame the fella.

Of relevance is the casting of an African-American actor as Lopakhin, a descendant of slaves whose actions power the plot. Perrineau is allowed a freedom of movement beyond that of the other characters, and it lets him, at times, come off as a charismatic cross between Usher and Savion Glover.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Tavi Gevinson are excellent as Varya and Anya, Lyubov’s daughters. Keenan-Bolger’s Varya has first-child syndrome, fretting about responsibility. Gevinson, last seen in “The Crucible,” is the softer one whose way of showing she’s worried is to plead with everyone to be optimistic.

Theater legend Joel Grey is here as Firs, the old butler who possesses an unswerving loyalty to the old order. Though Firs is doddering and weak, he retains his personality and worldview.

There are engaging performances from Tony winner Chuck Cooper (Cy Coleman’s “The Life”), as an irresponsible landowner; Tina Benko (another “Crucible” vet) as Charlotta, the trickster governess with an uncertain future; and Quinn Mattfeld as luckless Yepikhodov, the bookkeeper—“Mr. Misfortune”—who shows up at the fanciful second act costume party dressed as a chicken.

Director Simon Godwin, of the U.K.’s National Theatre, pulls together the stylized affair in a digestible 2 hours and 15 minutes. Designer Scott Pask’s nursery has a “Through the Looking Glass” vibe, with an oversized window and a tiny bed and tea table. When we do see the orchard, the trees are mobiles of round petals.

Roundabout’s “Cherry Orchard” is visually in the past, but aurally in the present. The result is a mixed bag lacking symbolic resonance: The audience gets neither the tragic grandeur nor the comedy of the aristocracy seeing its dominance end. Rather, this is a portrait of one clueless family losing their fortune because they don’t know how to save a buck.

“The Cherry Orchard,” through Dec. 4 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $57-$142. Call 212-719-1300.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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