11/12/2012 08:38 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

First Nighter: Ethan Hawke Superb in a Not Quite Superb Ivanov

Comedy in the theater is a funny thing. When confronted with tragedy, most audiences react similarly, Not with comedy. What strikes one crowd -- or some of the individuals in it -- as amusing may elicit only blank stares, maybe worse, from others.

This is by way of saying Austin Pendleton's production of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov at the Classic Stage Company is something of an unsolved puzzle. And that status probably isn't entirely due to Pendleton's direction of a highly competent cast. More likely, it's traceable to the tough challenge posed by the Russian playwright himself. Actually, Chekhov's designation of his works as comedies already can put American audiences in a quandary.

There's no question that the sorrows of the title character -- played by Ethan Hawke, one of Manhattan's most outstanding stage actors -- tickled Chekhov's funny bone. The impoverished well-heeled member of the shrinking land-owner class is so purposeless that his only perverse pleasure is taking sometimes blared, sometimes croaked issue with those hoping to extract him from his torpor. Then almost immediately, he begs abject forgiveness for the outrageous behavior.

The hang-dog Ivanov spends much time hanging around his peers as the butt of local jokes -- especially in the Lebedev household ruled by dizzyingly carefree land-owner (Pendleton) and curt, money-loaning wife Zinaida (Roberta Maxwell). The collective outbursts of this group about their relentless boredom reaches ludicrous heights that playwright Chekhov surely meant to elicit waves of guffaws. Only Ivanov's consumptive Jewish wife Anna (Joely Richardson) and Lebedev's level-headed, impassioned daughter Sasha (Juliet Rylance) buck the prevailing buffoonery.

Yet, as Chekhov presents Ivanov, he's standing in for a large population of men rendered aimless in a changing society. Their discontents are genuinely, disturbingly real. The result is a script of clashing tones that requires delicate handling director Pendleton doesn't quite render -- not as well as he did, for instance, in CSC's Uncle Vanya a few years back. But that one -- in which a man whose emotional compass has also gone haywire and, as with Ivanov, has grabbed a gun for emphasis -- is less problematic.

(Oh, that Chekhov with his male malcontents and their easy access to fire arms! Hello there, Konstantin of The Cherry Orchard.)

Ironically, seasoned Chekhovian Pendleton as Lebedev -- replacing Louis Zorich, who was originally tapped for the role) -- knows exactly how to balance his part. He mines the giggles in his character's blithe sense of himself and when switching attitude gears, instantly becomes markedly sobering.

About Hawke's Ivanov, the adjective "three-dimensional" lands as lamely insufficient He finds many more dimensions when the forlorn figure Is berating everyone with whom he comes into contact -- and no one more than himself. Raspy-voiced and gesturing, he advances through moods too numerous to count and too varied to describe briefly. He even gives out with an over-acted Hamlet excerpt, which is both humorous and indicative of someone rapidly coming to the end of his tether. (Hawke played Hamlet in Michael Almereyda's 2000 movie.)

The truth is that it's difficult to fault any of the players. They're all giving intelligent, even heart-felt performances. Certainly weighty contributions are made by Rylance, fast becoming a leading classics interpreter and here full of urgent energy, and Richardson, whose heritage as Vanessa Redgrave's daughter is especially discernible in her spectral Anna.

Also, Maxwell, another reliable addition to any Chekhov airing, is substantial with her stern delivery, as is the never-wrong George Morfogen taking on habitually complaining family hanger-on Count Shabelsky. Stephanie Jansson as the young widow whom the Count courts against his wishes, and Jonathan Marc Sherman as a nattering physician score points.

Yet, they're not getting the responses it seems Chekhov wanted -- and may have received when the first Russian audiences attended. Or maybe there's another way to look at it. Perhaps, there are two ways to approach this particularly prickly work -- as tragedy primarily or as, first and foremost, comedy. No, it can't be that. Chekhov's pages -- fluidly translated by Carol Rocamora -- are too layered to allow an either/or treatment. Let's just say it's Chekhov's problem and applaud Pendleton and troupe for how much they're getting right.

Incidentally, Ivanov's four acts (done here with one intermission) take place at both Ivanov's estate and the lavish home where the Lebedevs entertain. To represent both locations, Santo Loquasto has provided one set featuring a book-lined wall with one wide and one narrow doorway. Eventually, it's as confusing as the play it's intended to enhance.