Ethan Hawke wants you to know that he’s a really serious actor. When he’s not busy mentally masturbating with his pal Richard Linklater, he’s performing Shakespeare at the Old Vic in London. Now, he’s dabbling in Chekhov, playing the title part in Ivanov at the Classic Stage Company. In it, he saws the air with his hands, screams nearly every word that is assigned to him, and rolls around on the floor in the fetal position—he is acting so hard that he runs the risk of bursting a blood vessel.
Ivanov is sometimes called the “Russian Hamlet”—and Hamlet is a role that Mr. Hawke was born to play, albeit poorly. He has all of the Dane’s angst and self-obsession, if none of his charisma and intellectual curiosity. He is the worst kind of actor, the Donald Trump of the theater, a walking joke whose sole desire is for everybody to take him seriously. He might not have Trump’s comb over, but he does have deliberately messy hair that no doubt takes hours to style. Every moment he is onstage is a lie.
Which is a shame, since this Ivanov could have been a fairly successful production. The play centers on a husband (Mr. Hawke) who finds he has fallen out of love with his wife, Anna Petrovna (Joely Richardson). Born Sarah Abramson, Anna abandoned her Jewish faith and sacrificed any relationship with her parents for Ivanov, who, confronted with his absence of feelings for her, is tortured by guilt, a guilt he has no trouble discussing often and at length. Meanwhile, Sasha (Juliet Rylance), the daughter of Ivanov’s old friend Lebedev (director Austin Pendleton), insists that she has been in love with him for years, while his distant cousin and estate manager Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald) tries to pawn off his uncle Count Shabelsky (George Morfogen) to the rich but titleless Babakina (Stephanie Janssen). This unhappy bunch drinks and moans their way to an inevitable tragic conclusion, but with the typical Chekhovian humor that saves his great plays from the sort of static dreariness that overwhelms Ibsen.
The majority of the cast does a fine job, and Mr. Fitzgerald, in particular, delivers a supreme performance—his naturalness is disorienting, as we rarely see and hear people onstage who actually act and sound like real human beings. His Borkin is alternately charming and terrifying, flirting with the women before revealing his mercenary intentions to the men; he is the kind of person who rapes even when the sex is consensual. Mr. Pendleton also does a fine job with Lebedev (he is replacing the injured actor Louis Zorich). Shocks of white hair burst from his head in most every direction as he stumbles around the stage, backslapping his friends and bitching about his wife, rarely getting halfway through a single line without drunkenly starting over again.
Besides Mr. Hawke, the only weak link is Jonathan Marc Sherman, who plays Anna’s well intentioned but prideful doctor, Lvov. He generally speaks without cadence or accentuation, providing an odd foil to Mr. Hawke’s histrionics. In an extended scene the two share with each other, the actors seem to compete for who is the worse performer—I suppose Mr. Hawke emerges victorious, as you can ignore the robot’s monotone but have to actively dodge the ham’s endless spray of spittle.
Perhaps the most enjoyable moments of Ivanov come when Mr. Hawke is given lines that are accidentally appropriate: “How I despise myself,” for example, or, “I detest the sound of my own voice.” My personal favorite: “I’m not thinking of anything.” No shit.