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at the Mark Taper Forum

The biggest trap in performing the enduring works of Anton Chekhov is the tendency to let them become maudlin and morose, with more chest-beating than the recent remake of King Kong. This is particularly true with this play, perhaps the master's greatest, where the familiar lines are often delivered with wistful irony directly out front to an audience substituting geographically for the emblematic trees of the title. That is anything but the case in this amazingly accessible translation by Martin Sherman and under the sharply kinetic leadership of director Sean Mathias.

Chekhov insisted this play was a comedy, and here that humor becomes key to the presentation. There's something endearing rather than shockingly elitist when Annette Bening's innocently dilettante Ranyevskaya hears of Lopakhin's scheme to turn her orchard into a resort community. "Summer cottages? Summer tenants? Why, it's such bad taste!" she trills, never once seeming as though she is anything but a sweetly out of touch symbol of 19th century Russia's changing times. And as Lopakhin, that wily nouveau-riche descendant of Ranyevskaya's family serfs, Alfred Molina is the quintessential complement as Bening's la-di-da dowager dances around him; he avoids the customary pitfalls of mustache-twirling villainy and rampant boorishness usually defining this grossly misunderstood character.

The supporting cast is outstanding—with only two exceptions who need not be named, as their performances are flawed only in comparison with the exceptional work of the rest. In contrast, Sarah Paulson is a wonderful Varya, mining a vulnerability below the guarded exterior, Raphael Sbarge is delightfully silly yet utterly honest as the clumsy Yepikhodov, Frances Fisher is a major asset as Carlotta (even watchable when flagrantly upstaged by a pooch named Lucky), Jason Butler Harner knocks out Trofimov's revolutionary ideals without preaching, and Alan Mandell is sufficiently heartbreaking as the family's frail old servant Firs.

While social change is surely still the theme in this return to Chekhov's subtly political battle between aristocracy and the rise of the mercantile class, this magical production proves it's not only about personal loss and societal duty but also about the hardiness of the human spirit and how we face new beginnings—something our species handles with remarkable resilience.

Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12-Mar. 19. (213) 628-2772.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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