‘The Present,' or, Cate Blanchett's Explosive Birthday Weekend

Hollywood superstar Cate Blanchett, who has appeared on New York stages in three earlier Sydney Theatre Company productions, makes a belated Broadway debut in “The Present,” an austere update of Anton Chekhov’s first play.

If at times illuminated with an item of bold lingerie or sniping remark, most of the color in director John Crowley’s frenzied, engaging production comes from the party balloons Anna Petrovna (Blanchett) has hung to mark the occasion of her 40th birthday.

Fireworks, here, are both metaphorical and literal: Halfway through the three-hour drama, the sensual leading lady detonates the countryside summer house where much of the first act has transpired. 40 ... it's the new 14?

An adaptation by Andrew Upton, who is Blanchett’s husband, “The Present” arrives at The Barrymore Theatre with its original Australian cast intact. Anna’s foil, Mikhail, a childhood friend and former paramour, is played by Richard Roxburgh, who may be best known to American audiences from Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.”

Upton has relocated Chekhov’s untitled play (discovered more than a decade after the playwright’s death) to post-perestroika Russia, where an eclectic lot of friends are gathering to raise glasses of wine and Stoli to Anna, the independent, but compromised, widow.

Though no wilting rose, Anna realizes her currency as an eligible woman will deteriorate as she ages. The value of the land inheritance from her late husband is tied up in a web of leases she will require political connections to exploit. So she’s playing a couple of her late husband’s comrades off one another, with a scheme to marry the one who makes the better offer.

Her other motivations aren’t entirely clear, but Anna doesn’t want to reach this milestone alone, so she invites 10 or so guests to the house she’s inherited, among them a trio of friends from her youth—chief instigator among them is Roxburgh’s puckish Mikhail, with whom Anna shares ... much that's unresolved.

Blanchett and Roxburgh, with more than two decades of experience acting opposite one another, make for an appealing duo. Her Anna has settled into life as a widow, whose method of rebellion is making trouble socially; his Mikhail into one as a schoolteacher whose method of lashing out is simple philandering.

Blanchett has the easier time locating her character. She’s diva-like, knowing she can keep a man under her spell, yet also self-aware—a woman in increasingly desperate straits, who yet somehow never seems like a desperate woman.

It's harder to sense the misgivings underneath Mikhail's bluff exterior. He seems to have a clear-eyed sense of the tradeoffs he's made, and while his regrets are obvious (“Marriage—after ‘I fell in love’—is one long renovation,” he remarks despairingly to one of his old chums), he never seems quite so destabilized a playboy as to invite the outcome Chekhov and Upton have devised for him.

Upton divides “The Present” into four scenes: an outdoor introduction to the characters, which tends to meander; the party; a hallucinatory scene in fog, during which Mikhail’s mischievous side is front-and-center; and, a post-soiree segment, when things really go to hell.

Crowley (on film, “Brooklyn”; on stage, “The Pillowman”) keeps things moving quickly, given the number of connections he’s obliged to juggle. “The Present” is ultimately more coherent than this season’s earlier Chekhov offering, “The Cherry Orchard,” though both conclude on characteristically despairing notes.

“The Present,” through March 19 at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Tickets: $59-$159. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn 

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