Chekov is hard, possibly one of the hardest playwrights to do well. He is often seen as tragedy, when he is primarily dark comedy. Stephen Karam’s (Speech & Debate) adaptation juggles those aspects rather well, and reframes the play in interesting ways, starting near the end and then showing us how we got there. It was a very clever device to help set understanding.
Annette Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) is solid in her Diva role. It isn’t a new character for her, but she sells it well. Similarly for Brian Dennehy. On the other hand, Corey Stoll (Cafe Society) and Jon Tenney (Radio Free Albemuth) each get to tackle new types of characters and both deliver layered and broken men of the times.
Billy Howle (Dunkirk) and Saoirse Ronan (Loving Vincent) as the central love story play well enough together, but are a tad wooden. Unfortunately, that leaves Mare Winningham (Philomena), Glenn Fleshler (Braindead), and Michael Zegen (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) at the periphery and without a lot of impact, though Zegen has his moments.
However, it was Elisabeth Moss (The Square) that really stood out for me here. She embodied Chekov’s sensibility in wonderful dark and funny ways. Even as a side character, she is unforgettable and funny, punctuating the story with humor and pathos at important moments.
Director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World) does some very interesting things with the story to bring it home. In addition to his understanding of the material, he embraced Karam’s new framing to show us where the characters end up and then how they got there, before wrapping it all up. He also managed to keep the period setting feel current without sacrificing the roots of the tale. Chekov is so often just a specialty piece for a narrow audience, like Vanya on 42nd Street, that it is nice to see it tackled so well as something more mainstream for a broader reach.