NEW YORK — Even at the beginning, even for his most chronically morose character, Chekhov was writing comedies, in the sense that he always enjoyed the absurdity of ordinary human dilemmas.
And none of Chekhov's main characters is more ordinary, or absurd, than Ivanov, the unheroic hero of his first completed play, written in 1887. Sometimes included in the "major play" collections, sometimes not, "Ivanov" is a problem play in that it places a one-note protagonist into a complex Chekhovian universe, a crumbling society in which the most interesting characters are broke, the rich are vulgar and the smartest have lost their way.
Lincoln Center revives this peripheral play with a fresh and funny adaptation by David Hare, which was done at London's Almeida Theatre earlier this year with Ralph Fiennes (Broadway's Hamlet in 1995). It's easy to understand why actors drawn to Hamlet would be drawn to Ivanov; the paralysis of both characters has a pleasurably indulgent, even romantic, contemporary ring. Another former Hamlet, Kevin Kline, plays Ivanov here, to curiously subdued effect.
As is Hamlet's, Ivanov's mental state is always central to the drama. But unlike Hamlet, to whom he refers several times in his despairing monologues, Ivanov is offered several excellent routes out of his trouble, and he perversely turns down each one. He prefers his ennui. He embraces it. He marries it with more fidelity than he can show his actual wife, Anna (Jayne Atkinson), a lovesick, tubercular woman who is dying and whom Ivanov cannot bring himself to tend.
We hear the rumors that he married Anna, a Jew, for her money, only to have her parents disinherit her. Now he is attracted to the adoring Sasha (Hope Davis), a young blond beauty with a horribly parsimonious mother, Zinaida (a hilarious Marian Seldes), and a wise, sweet, ineffectual father, Lebedev (the wonderful Max Wright).
Sasha is an honorable young lady. After Anna's death, rather than bow to her mother's meddling, she decides to give up her dowry in order to marry Ivanov on her own terms. Too honest to plot and swindle, too morally confused to admit that he really does want the money, Ivanov gets taken coming and going.
For all of his moaning, Ivanov is essentially a comic figure. Kline, however, does not seem to view him that way. This gifted actor has never found a way to combine his two acting modes--the free-wheeling, joyful, often Dada-esque comedian (the Pirate King in "The Pirates of Penzance" and to a lesser extent the lead in the current film "In & Out") and his brooding, naturalistic side ("Hamlet," the film "The Ice Storm").
Ivanov is a role that demands he find a way to reconcile the two Klines. He does not. His Ivanov is humorless; no modern sense of irony enlivens his repetitive whining.
The superb director Gerald Gutierrez does great work in the larger scenes. The Act 2 party at the Lebedev household, where Ivanov goes to escape Anna, is a complex tapestry of characters sharing an evening together, a glorious parade of greed, stupidity, good intentions and average, aching humanity.
For this scene, John Lee Beatty's set moves forward from the back of the stage, providing a cinematic zoom-in to a room in which the pictures and lamps are under dust sheets because of the penny-pinching of Zinaida. Bored, obedient men have gathered to halfheartedly woo a guest, a wealthy, vulgar widow (Judith Hawking). Older people play cards in the background. Nowhere does Chekhov capture better how fascinating ordinary life can be.
As Zinaida, Seldes watches over all; her evil-looking arched eyebrows constantly seemed concerned how much candle light her card-playing guests are consuming, all the while she never offers anyone anything more than tea and jam to sweeten it. She keeps sending her ancient servant Gavrila (William Preston) on glacially slow journeys back and forth to the pantry.
With his tiny, spindly legs visible under knee-length knickers, the diminutive Gavrila seems to be walking against the wind to fetch and carry for this nasty woman, who maliciously snuffs out the candles at the card table, as if she were snuffing out the presence of any hungry soul who might dare to want to be fed by her. This is an extremely funny portrait by an actress who dares to go over the top and makes it pay off enormously.
As her husband Lebedev, Max Wright gives a rich performance, one that mingles the rare mix of comedy and solemnity in Chekhov's best writing.
The most sensible character onstage, Lebedev tells Ivanov, "No doubt to you, with all your new-fangled psychology, what you're saying makes perfect sense. But to me it sounds the same as bad behavior." Bad behavior--Hare's term--is an apt description for Ivanov's repetitive non-actions.
Ivanov is the angst-ridden protagonist who owes more to Dostoevsky's Underground Man than to Hamlet. If his absurdity is not fully realized by Kline at Lincoln Center, this production still gives us the world around him as rich and complete as in any of the major Chekhov plays.
* "Ivanov," Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, (800) 432-7250, through Jan. 4.