Slimming down a Chekhov play that needed it

Wild Honey Comedy by Michael Frayn from an untitled play by Anton Chekhov. Production conceived and directed by Christopher Morahan. Starring Ian McKellen. `WILD Honey,'' at the Virginia Theatre, is a triumph of bravura performance and inventive theatricalism. Michael Frayn, whose credits include ``Noises Off'' and ``Benefactors,'' has radically revised an early untitled play by Anton Chekhov, while remaining substantially faithful to the principal characters, relationships, and spirit of the original. With Ian McKellen starring as Platanov, the role he created for the National Theatre of Great Britain, the Anglo-American collaboration represents playmaking of a very high order.

In his introduction to the published text of ``Wild Honey,'' Mr. Frayn estimates that the overwritten original would have run something like six hours, ``with too many characters, too many disparate themes and aims, and too much action. It is trying to be simultaneously a sexual comedy, a moral tract, a melodrama, a state-of-Russia play, and a tragedy.'' Even in its present two-act form, the adaptation lasts for nearly three hours.

While Chekhov's fledgling effort contains hints of the great later plays (notably ``The Cherry Orchard''), the central character of schoolmaster Platanov (Mr. McKellen) remains what Frayn has called ``overwhelmingly, wonderfully, appallingly'' himself, an original.

Platanov's decline from brilliant university student to provincial schoolmaster and local eccentric conditions a character whose wit and arrogance coexist with his misgivings and disappointments. His life has been a promissory note which never paid off in the way his friends expected.

Sofya, the young newly married woman whom he later seduces, asks him, ``Why haven't you ... done better?'' Platanov admits that there was nothing to prevent him from achieving something worthwhile but ``the question is whether there was ever anything to be stopped. I wasn't put in the world to do things. I was put here to prevent others from doing them.''

That is Platanov's intellectual malaise, for which irony provides no solace. But it is his moral instability that is more perilous to the women who are drawn to him. He resists having an affair with Anna Petrovna (Kathryn Walker), the handsome widow on whose provincial estate the action takes place. But he allows himself to philander with the aforementioned Sofya (Kim Cattrall), the pretty wife of his best friend, Sergey (Frank Maraden). He treats his faithful wife, Sasha (Kate Burton), abominably and has a teasing relationship with Marya Grekova (J. Smith-Cameron), a bespectacled chemistry student.

Platanov's incorrigible behavior takes place amid the comic-melodramatic-atmospheric-tragic context indicated by Frayn in his introduction. The characters banter, argue, and philosophize; eat and overimbibe; take off into the birch forest that forms a permanent background for the changing scenes.

``Wild Honey'' ranges in mood from the genuinely affecting to a farcicality with Gallic - or perhaps one should say Anglo-Gallic - flourishes. Not for the first time, the Russian soul reveals a funny bone.

McKellen's Platanov is a volatile combination of manic ebullience, petulance, and phony mea culpas. The actor's body English is as eloquent as his speech. All Platanov wants from the women he deceives and mistreats is sympathy and forgiveness. And apparently none of them can resist the rogue.

His moment of truth, stunningly projected by the British star, comes only when Platanov can no longer tolerate his own disheveled state or the wretchedness he has wrought. The tragicomedy ends with a fatal, spectacular gesture that justifies Frayn's amendment to Chekhov.

As the estate owner about to be dispossessed, the radiant Ms. Walker gives a splendidly rich performance. Impassioned and determined, her Anna Petrovna could be described as a Slavic version of Shaw's new woman without the Shavian advantages.

Ms. Cattrall's beautiful Sofya is all self-conscious charm and pliant susceptibility. Ms. Burton wins the spectator's sympathy as Platanov's misused wife, and so, to a lesser degree, does Ms. Smith-Cameron as the put-upon Grekova.

In addition to those already mentioned, assorted Chekhov types are well played by a cast that includes Sullivan Brown, Jonathan Moore, Franklin Cover, William Duff-Griffin, Stephen Mendillo, and George Hall.

The production conceived and directed by Christopher Morahan is as remarkable for its design as for its histrionic virtues. Deirdre Clancy's costumes are picturesque, even for the scruffy Platanov.

As lighted by Martin Aronstein, John Gunter's intricate settings exist in a surrounding void of darkness, giving a sense of light and shadow that reflects the mood of the play.

Messrs. Gunter and Aronstein share credit for the simulated trains that thunder onto the scene - at one point appearing to be headed straight for the orchestra section. This is what theatrical effect is all about. It is intrinsic to the achievement of ``Wild Honey.''

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