Ivanov is not as perfect a play as Chekhov’s Three Sisters (at Classic Stage) or The Cherry Orchard, which came later, but I enjoyed it even more — filled with fascinating and amusing characters, it spills over into a rambunctious panorama of life. That’s all the more amazing because — characteristically Chekhov — the characters like to proclaim that they’re “bored ” but the play is vital and engaging — how does he do it? One thing: the writing is marvelous. And in this Classic Stage production, the acting is superb, and Austin Pendleton’s naturalistic, soft-voiced direction highly effective in drawing you in and making you believe.
Ethan Hawk gives his all: he understands every nuance of Chekhov’s portrait of the anguished, depressed Ivanov and portrays it vividly through voice, facial expression, and movement — he fairly dances through the part. His is a particularly individualized performance, but all the actors are perfectly cast and draw the most of humor and meaning from their parts.
Ivanov, a landowner in late 19th-century Russia, is in straightened fiscal circumstances, is married to a woman he no longer loves, and has let his once ambitious agricultural plans for his estate fall by the wayside.
Plenty of reason to be depressed in all that, and so we first meet him lying in his rumpled white linen suit on his rumpled bed in daytime, fitfully trying to read. Interruptions, such when the steward of his estate comes in with a shady — read modern exploitive — money-making scheme, exasperate him. Reminders — as from the well-meaning, pompous young doctor, that Ivanov should save his wife Anna, who is dying of tuberculosis, by taking her for a long rest in a warm climate — exasperate him even more.
Sorry for himself as he feels, though, Ivanov is not a victim: he’s brought his woes on himself, but he’s created a victim in his wife. Five years ago, he passionately wooed her, and she gave up Jewish faith and her family for love of him. Had he, back then, wooed her for her money? so that his “falling out of love” is really disappointment that when she converted to his Russian Orthodox faith she lost her dowry? Or did the stifling cloud of his depression simply descend upon him as Chekhov, a medical doctor, knew can happen? We’re never sure. One thing is clear: Ivanov is not a good man — but a fascinating theatrical character, and fascinating to women.
Now Anna’s doctor is continually hammering at Ivanov to take her away for warmth and rest while Ivanov abhors the idea of being alone with her. Anyhow, he doesn’t have the money. He evades all pressing issues by going over to the Lebedevs’ estate where things are a lot more fun, even though he’s harassed by Zinaida Lebedeva, a tight-fisted money lender, for the 9000 roubles he owes her. There are a variety of acquaintances, characters, jokes, his warm friend, Paul Lebedev, and — brandy in the punch — the Lebdev’s 20-year old daughter, Sasha, who’s infatuated with him.
Anna and her faithful advocate and doctor follow him there, only to catch him kissing Sasha, which leads Anna to believe that Ivanov has always been false, their love a sham from the start, that the bitterest pill for a sick woman. How Chekhov works out these situations of love and betrayal … well, let’s just say Ivanov finally does something forceful.
Such rich, abundant, fully realized theater as Classic Stage’s production of Ivanov takes you beyond yourself. Chekhov creates a full world that offers the bright, stimulating pleasure of attentiveness for the duration of the play. And the characters are so alive, amusing and vivid that they stay with you in your world afterwards.
Ivanov plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through December 9th, 2012.