'WILD HONEY' AT AHMANSON : FRAYN'S FANTASIA ON A CHEKHOVIAN THEME

Times Theater Critic

Birch trees. A samovar. The sound of a cello. Whatever shall we do?

That's one way to stage Chekhov. We've also seen slapstick productions where all the characters fall into the birthday cake. The man wrote comedies, didn't he?

There has to be a better way. It's indicated by "Wild Honey" at the Ahmanson Theatre, Michael Frayn's adaptation--variation, would put it better--of Chekhov's long-lost "Platonov."

This is comedy, to be sure. In Frayn's rewrite it's even farce. But its characters don't want to have their feelings laughed at. It's humiliating enough for them to find themselves chasing around the forest like a stag in rutting season. They are positive that God is writing all this down.

On the other hand, they say to themselves, it is summer. If one is going to sin, one might as well sin strongly. God, what mixed-up creatures we are. Where will it all end?

That's the mood wanted in Chekhov: not ennui , but a fierce need to have adventures. "Wild Honey" has an English accent, but it feels like a mad evening under the Russian moon--or the North Dakota moon. Winter's coming! Hurry!

All rules and categories are off. Our hero (Ian McKellen) is both a total cad and a desperately sympathetic person. Our hostess (Kathryn Walker) is a noble lady who goes after her pleasures as boldly as a peasant, far more boldly than the quibbling McKellen. On a good night, Chekhov shows us real men and women, rather than types, and "Wild Honey" finds him in a particularly elated mood, touched by the same moon-madness that infects his characters.

Purists will want to know how much of the play Chekhov actually wrote. A comparison with an old translation of "Platonov" by David Magarshack makes it evident that Frayn has made very free with the story. Certainly he's made it more of a farce, with all the characters piling up at just the right embarrassing moment, a la Feydeau--or "Noises Off."

But then Frayn has acknowledged as much in his Ahmanson program notes. His intention was to carve a playable play out of an unwieldly and problematic text--not to provide the last word on "Platonov." There will be other, more faithful stagings now that Frayn has brought the play back into discussion. Call "Wild Honey" a fantasia on a Chekhovian theme, if that's more comfortable. It works.

And some of its boldest moments are there in the original. Chekhov's characters don't mince words in "Platonov"--or, if they do, it's only to be polite. They want what they want, particularly the women. Usually it's Platonov--the wretch. (McKellen's Platonov would be the first to admit that he's a wretch. In fact he is admitting it all the time.)

Chekhov's women are so strong, in fact, that it's a shame that Frayn didn't follow the original and let Platonov suffer his fate at the hand of the betrayed Sofya (Kim Cattrall), rather than on the cow-catcher of a passing freight-train. Frayn's image is more theatrical, but Chekhov's is more dramatic. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I don't think we would have been jarred by it, after all the other surprises of the night.

But that's conjecture. Frayn has done very well by Chekhov's women (including Kate Burton as Platonov's wife, who will put up with only so much, even in summer) and he has done even better by his hero. This is one of the funniest and best-informed portraits of a womanizer ever drawn--and McKellen's performance fills in any detail that Frayn and Chekhov may have left out.

McKellen's Platonov doesn't need to go around exploiting women. Women come to him, like bees to wild honey. They are drawn by his need for them. They don't just want to mother him. They want to rescue him--from his drinking, his indolence.

As opposed to the boring men in their lives (exemplified by Frank Maraden as Cattrall's well-meaning young husband), McKellen offers a woman both an adventure in eroticism and a spiritual reclamation project. This is irresistible, to the point where McKellen truly becomes exhausted at the number of females he has to keep track of. He is also truly distressed at the prospect of cuckolding his men friends. A more sincere rascal you have never met, and the ladies love that about him, too. How exciting to hear an attractive, troubled man telling you everything that is running through his head--including his decision to put a stop to this affair this very instant. A romance with Platonov will call a woman's finer feelings into play. It will never be merely a roll in the hay.

There isn't a moment of cynicism in this for anybody except Walker as the lady of the estate--and perhaps with her it isn't cynicism, either, simply frankness. She takes her love neat, like her vodka. Let's face it, Walker says in her wonderful deep voice, ultra-suitable for Russian ladies of quality--"I'm a drinker."

All this isn't just "Chekhovian." It's Chekhov. McKellen has the starring role, and more than lives up to it--it's a dazzling turn. But everyone else rings true as well, down to George Hall, as the man who keeps delivering summonses from the local magistrate, and Stephen Mendillo as Ossip, the local horsethief. The hectic emotional terrain feels lived-in and understood.

We do, I think, catch the characters acting farce at times, rather than having real accidents. (McKellen included: when his arm hurts, it didn't set up a sympathetic twinge with mine.) Director Christopher Morahan and the company may simply need more performances before the technical business of the play becomes second nature--and McKellen may need to forget that he's done it to perfection already, in London.

The sets, by John Gunter, could not be better--or grander. This National Theatre of Great Britain production has everything, including a locomotive. There's a moonlit railroad crossing so plausible that one wouldn't be surprised to see a skunk pop out of the woods and run across the track.

It could be, however, that the design is a bit too enamored of nighttime effects. When some fireworks go off early, and someone laments that they should have waited until it's dark, it already is dark, as far as we can see. Everyone in Russia and North Dakota knows that one of the sexiest things about summer nights is how long they take to come on. But "Wild Honey" gets most of it right.

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