Classic Stage has been on a tear with Chekhov lately, with last season’s Beckettian Cherry Orchard following on the prior season’s incandescent Three Sisters. They mounted The Seagull in 2008 and Uncle Vanya in 2009 (neither of which I managed to see), which left them only one major play, the relatively unloved Ivanov. Well, the play may be less-loved than Chekhov’s other dramas by most people, but director Austin Pendleton has brought a great deal of love to this production; if he can’t kindle affection in you for the play, then perhaps the fault lies elsewhere.

Chekhov’s comedy is always dark, and funnier for that, but Ivanov is darker than usual, equally horrified by death and by life. If last year’s Cherry Orchard felt like crossing Chekhov with Beckett, this Ivanov felt like crossing Chekhov with O’Neill – the O’Neill of The Iceman Cometh. That’s praise, in my book. But, like Iceman, and like Hamlet, the play it is more often compared to, and unlike most of Chekhov, Ivanov is dominated by a single, title character. Which poses certain risks to even the most persuasive production, if the audience winds up feeling critical of the interpretation of that central character. Which is what happened with me, with this wonderful production.

I haven’t read Ivanov since college, have never seen it, and didn’t remember it well, so I came to the play without many preconceptions, other than a slight apprehension about the lead, Ethan Hawke. Ivanov, a cranky, depressed man who nonetheless seems to charm all the most beautiful women in the province would seem to be a role tailor-made for Hawke, but that’s precisely why I was apprehensive. I feared that he would give us “Ethan Hawke As Ivanov” – the Hamlet-haunted protagonist that he’s played numerous times before (and the text gives him plenty of justification for such an approach). And those fears were, to an extent, realized.

Ivanov, for all that he constantly refers to Hamlet, isn’t much like the Dane. He doesn’t have his mother “issues.” He isn’t laboring under an obligation that he can’t bring himself to discharge. He isn’t filled with manic energy that he can’t figure out how to put to proper use. Ivanov is, rather, one of Chekhov’s disillusioned charmers: his kin are Astrov, from Uncle Vanya, Vershinin, from Three Sisters, Trigorin from The Seagull. These men once had ideals and ambitions of one sort or another, but they have lost faith in them – and in themselves – without losing their knack for charming their way into beautiful women’s knickers. Ivanov is the only major Chekhov play that puts this character at the center of the drama, and for the occasion Chekhov endows him with the miserable self-consciousness (and the handgun) that more usually accrues to the Vanyas and Treplevs.

The key to the character, it seems to me, is this exchange, with Lebedev, midway through Act III:

[Stopping him as he goes out] Paul, what is the matter with me?

I have wanted to ask you that myself, but I must confess I was ashamed to. I don’t know, old chap. Sometimes I think your troubles have been too heavy for you, and yet I know you are not the kind to give in to them; you would not be overcome by misfortune. It must be something else, Nicholas, but what it may be I can’t imagine.

I can’t imagine either what the matter is, unless–and yet no– [A pause] Well, do you see, this is what I wanted to say. I used to have a workman called Simon, you remember him. Once, at threshing-time, to show the girls how strong he was, he loaded himself with two sacks of rye, and broke his back. He died soon after. I think I have broken my back also. First I went to school, then to the university, then came the cares of this estate, all my plans–I did not believe what others did; did not marry as others did; I worked passionately, risked everything; no one else, as you know, threw their money away to right and left as I did. So I heaped the burdens on my back, and it broke. We are all heroes at twenty, ready to attack anything, to do everything, and at thirty are worn-out, useless men. How, oh, how do you account for this weariness? However, I may be quite wrong; go away, Paul, I am boring you.

I know what is the matter with you, old man: you got out of bed on the wrong side this morning.

That is stupid, Paul, and stale. Go away!

It is stupid, certainly. I see that myself now. I am going at once. [LEBEDEV goes out.]

[Alone] I am a worthless, miserable, useless man. Only a man equally miserable and suffering, as Paul is, could love or esteem me now.

I know this man. “To show the girls how strong he was” – to establish that he was exceptional in the eyes of others, and thereby to come to be such to himself, he made a series of life-altering decisions, the most important of which was to marry a Jewess, a cultural foreigner, pull her out of her life (her parents disowned her completely) so that her entire world depended on him. He did this, he all but admits here, not out of love for her – he may, in fact, have loved her, but that wasn’t why he married her. He married her to prove that he could do it. To prove that he could shoulder that burden all by himself. Marriage was of a piece with his liberal reforming activities, his leadership in the community – it was all to “show the girls how strong he was.” And then, one day, he woke up, and the meaning had simply drained out of that activity. It’s not that the load was, in some objective sense, too heavy for a man. It’s that he suddenly understood why he had taken on that load, and how weak and insufficient such a reason is for founding a life. Other people’s perceptions of his strength were not enough to make him strong.

This sense of a change – of the scales having fallen from his eyes – is what I didn’t get from Hawke’s performance. When he said, “I did not believe what others did; did not marry as others did; I worked passionately, risked everything” – I heard him defending himself against an imagined accuser. “I’m not inherently bad and useless – I used to be good, productive, exemplary!” But when I read the words, I hear a deep bitterness. “I put myself in this situation,” I hear, “and I did it by trying to be good, and by trying to be great. And now I am washed up!” The great loss consequent on missing this dimension is that, without it, the pre-history of his marriage to Anna is invisible to us. What did she see in him? What did he see in her? I couldn’t tell. I saw his impatience with her, and his guilt as his impatience, but not the glittering facade this ruined man once was, and how that facade might have inspired.

Shortly before she dies, Ivanov finally throws “hold your tongue, Jewess!” in her face – and when she won’t, he tells her what has been held from her until now, that she is dying. The bitterness of that “Jewess” is the bitterness of an unwanted burden. He didn’t marry her for money, the way everybody said. But neither did he marry her for love. He married her to make a point. And now he feels himself skewered by it. He hates himself not for having fallen under his burden, but for having taken it up in the first place.

Which is why he recoils from the love offered him by Sasha – because she, determined to save him from himself, and to give meaning to her life by sacrificing herself for him, is about to repeat his own life-crushing error. And, again, I felt like there was a dimension missing from Hawke, that he was in tune with Ivanov’s self-loathing, and consequent self-involvement, but that he missed this dimension of identification with Sasha, that there’s a reason why he is particularly horrified by the prospect of destroying her, and not because he loves her particularly, but because he was her, once.

I’ve been accentuating the negative, but I really shouldn’t. I was held, powerfully, by this play, and by this production – and I don’t think I would have these insights about Ivanov’s character were it not for Ethan Hawke’s performance, even though that performance inspired me to think of what I felt was missing. But the play is much more than the title character, and it’s in the peripheral roles that this production really shined. Three actors, and three roles, stood out for me particularly. First, Glenn Fitzgerald as Borkin, the cynical estate manager. From the moment we met him, I knew him as well – I’ve worked with him, the guy convinced he’s got a sure-fire money-making scheme that the bosses are just too dim or too timid to sign off on. His genuine affection for Ivanov coupled with his awareness – and cruel delight – that his cynicism is giving Ivanov the horrors: it’s a very fine, Chekhovian mix. Next, George Morfogen as the moth-eaten Count Shabelsky, the other scabrously comic character, who Borkin convinces to propose to a rich but bourgeoise (and much younger) widow, a cynical plan to stabilize his finances that even Shabelsky can’t finally go through with. His is the blackest comedy – even an ode to a salted cucumber has an undercurrent of horror – and Morfogen absolutely nails it. Finally, last but actually first in my esteem, Austin Pendleton himself as Lebedev, in a heartbreakingly sincere performance. Here is the true ruin of a man – a man with no power, no authority, no accomplishments, no recognition, no credit. And he’s just the sweetest, most harmless, most miserable creature imaginable, and I just wanted to pick him up and take him home, away from all these awful, awful people. The female roles in Ivanov don’t have quite the complexity that Chekhov’s women usually have – there is no Masha or Nina or Ranevskaya here – but the women in the cast, from Juliet Rylance as Sashsa, to Joely Richardson as Anna, to Roberta Maxwell as Zinaida, to more than creditable work.

I went into the theatre curious, but only curious – eager mostly to “complete” the Chekhov cycle. But after Pendleton’s production, I didn’t feel complete. I felt hungry – to wrestle with this play, and this man, again. The book isn’t closed; I’ve only just begun to read it.