The Aristocrats: Elective Affinities Offers Tea, Truffles, a Triumphant Zoe Caldwell

Chekov’s <em>Cherry Orchard</em> as comedy, tragedy, farce

This play, too, is about the pathologies of the upper class, though here it is about a different sort of aristocratic myopia, Russian landowners unwilling to see that the world changed after the emancipation of the serfs and unable to do the work necessary to maintain their way of life. Chekov intended it as a comedy; Stanislavski, who directed its inaugural production, in 1904, treated it as a tragedy. The new production that opened Sunday at the Classic Stage Company, directed by Andrei Belgrader, emphasizes the comedy, turning parts of the play into near-farce, while letting an aura of tragedy hang over the proceedings.

Ms. Wiest is joined by an accomplished and equally convincing cast. John Turturro plays Lopakhin, the son of a serf who’s become a wealthy man in modernizing, turn-of-the-20th-century Russia, with a touch of working-class Brooklyn in his voice; Juliet Rylance is stolid and sympathetic as Varya, Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter, who has long managed the estate about to be lost; Michael Urie pratfalls through his performance as a clumsy clerk; and Alvin Epstein does a wicked, puckish turn as Fiers, the elderly servant who misses serfdom.

The production’s almost fairy-tale effect—bits of comedy amid a vague feeling of unease—is augmented by the beautiful, haunting, impressionistic design, pale and painterly. (Santo Loquasto did the sets, Marco Piemontese the costumes and James F. Ingalls the lights.) The only problem is that John Christopher Jones’s translation, which renders the four-act play in a brisk two and a quarter hours, including intermission, so compresses things that many characters’ identities and relationships are left unarticulated and incomprehensible. It’s occasionally distracting—but, then, in a fairy tale, who expects precision?