12/04/2011 11:18 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2012

Stage Door: The Cherry Orchard, The Mountaintop

Written in 1904,The Cherry Orchard, Chekov's last play, feels wholly modern. Now at the Classic Stage Company, its issues of class, money and romantic ruin seem timeless. A family of Russian aristocrats, led by Madame Ranevskaya (a superb Dianne Wiest) has been doomed by scandal and financial ineptitude. Destroyed by a bad love affair and the death of her young son, she is unable to face reality, thereby salvaging her family home.

Salvation is broached by Lopakhin (John Turturro), a peasant turned rich businessman. He suggests the unthinkable -- selling the family's 10,000-acre cherry orchard. Rather than consider such ecological devastation, Ranevskaya's rather decadent brother Gaev (Daniel Davis), forever in a dreamy, nostalgic state, happily declares "red ball in the side pocket."

Machinations are many -- both romantic and monetary. Ranevskaya has one practical suggestion -- that Lopakhin marry her daughter Varya (Juliet Rylance). But as Varya reminds her mother, he hasn't asked her. When he attempts, however pathetically, an emotional moment, Turturro delivers one of the best scenes in the CSC's masterful production.

The failure to connect on any level propels the play. In Chekov, love doesn't click; suffering is inevitable. Aristocrats, the middle class, reformers -- no one escapes unscathed. Yet the play is a comedy; Chekov finds humor within domestic missteps, as worlds are up-ended.

This is the new Russia; since the emancipation of the serfs, the once-wealthy landowners have no source of cheap labor. Thus, they are ill prepared to cope with the modern world, echoed in the political speeches of the perennial student Trofimov (Josh Hamilton), an early Bolshevik.

Beautifully rendered by Santo Loquasto's set and James F. Ingalls lighting, The Cherry Orchard addresses the seismic effect of social change. The direction is deft, though breaking the fourth wall seems a curious choice.

The cast, led by a captivating Wiest, proves CSC is an ideal company to stage Chekov. Turturro takes time to find his footing, then makes the role his own -- as does the rest of the impressive ensemble. This is a memorable Cherry Orchard that captures the mind and heart.

Sixty-four years later, standing on a hotel bed in The Mountaintop, pretending to give a civil-rights speech, a spirited, opinionated maid delivers a strong proclamation, declaring, she "doesn't need a Ph.D" to express her anger at white America. And for most of the 85-minute drama, Camae (Angela Bassett) lectures and cajoles a tired Martin Luther King, Jr. (Samuel L. Jackson) on the eve of his assassination.

Set in Memphis in April 1968, The Mountaintop, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, is a meditation on the private man behind the public persona. Rather than enshrined as heroic, here the impressive leader is clearly flawed: He has smelly feet and cheats on his wife. That doesn't lessen King; it humanizes him. He may be on a divine mission, fighting for freedom and equality, but he is still vulnerable to temptation.

It's a stormy night, and King is worn out by ill health, death threats and the demands of his cause. He is in Memphis to lead a sanitation workers' strike, after delivering one of his most famous speeches: "I've Been To The Mountaintop." By the time of his death, he had enlarged his mission to include ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.

Now, preparing another stirring oratory, he orders coffee and Camae, an irreverent, engaging woman, brings it. What ensues is a flirtatious and touching exchange -- with a thoughtful twist. Playwright Katori Hall posits an interesting detour, veering into issues of fate and destiny, redemption and acceptance.

While Mountaintop is moving and heartfelt, the drama would be stronger if director Kenny Leon had suggested Bassett, who delivers an excellent performance, give a bit less, while encouraging an understated Jackson to up his game a bit more. We see the vulnerable King, but not enough glimpses of the iconic one.

Still, the touching production makes manifest that King's work, and the numerous personal sacrifices he made, were extraordinary. One is left to wonder how much more he could have accomplished if an assassin's bullet had not found its mark.