Once, in the dramatic dictionary, the word "Chekhovian" defined an especially exquisite form of boredom. It meant soulful yearning, romantic longing, endless gloom. And then, reacting against all of this, directors discovered the comedy, even the farce, that runs through the great Russian's plays. They pretended that these plays about a dying world were not gloomy at all. And that became just as much a cliche as what went before.
In fact, what makes a writer so enduring as Chekhov is that he could create an infinite variety of moods and emotions. "The Cherry Orchard" is gloomy and farcical, funny and romantic, full of comedy and of sorrow. And what makes a great production of the play, like the one the Moscow Sovremennik company opened for a short run last night, is that it can contain all of these wild swings of tone and feeling and still remain beautifully poised.
Chekhov tells a simple story of loss. Ranevskya, played by Marina Neyolova as a blowzy, domineering but strangely childlike middle-aged woman, has lost her son by drowning and is about to lose her estate. We know from the opening moments that her beloved orchard will be cut down, that her life will collapse. There is no suspense, and precious little action.
Slowly, though, we come to feel that the ax is being taken not just to a single orchard but to a whole world. Modern life is coming railways, tourists, industries. The peasant's son Lopakhin (splendidly played by Sergei Garmash) has become a millionaire. Because everything that has made sense of life for this old landowning family is slipping away, they find it hard to keep the same thought or feeling in their heads for more than a few moments.
If you don't understand this while you watch the play, then the characters seem petulant, like emotional magpies, flitting from despair to exuberance. But when, as here, all of this is implicit in every little gesture, their fate enthralls us. Director Galina Volchek, in a brilliant use of what are usually minor characters, tells us what is going on through the mocking insolence of the servants. When the maid is trying to seduce the millionaire and the young butler is openly contemptuous of his masters, you know you are in the middle of a social earthquake.
With such solid roots in reality, Volchek can afford to slip the leash of heavy, realistic sets and bring out the elements of theatrical fantasy. Here, the orchard, in a beautifully stylized form, is on the stage, creating a kind of fairy-tale forest.
This touch of magic allows the actors to be as contradictory, as unstable, as people really are. They can give us pratfalls and pathos. They can reveal the true Chekhov, a writer whose gaze is unflinching but never pitiless, who sees people as ridiculous but never contemptible. They can create the kind of immediate presence that overcomes even the problem of having to listen to them in translation through a headset.
In Russian, the company's name, Sovremennik, means "contemporary." In this gripping, deeply pleasurable production, the troupe lives up to it, making these figments of a long-dead world seem, for a while, to be part of our own.
''Ya kupil!'' Lopakhin exclaims in Russian, and even without your headphones on supplying simultaneous translation, you know for sure that the headstrong, rags-to-riches businessman of Chekhov's ''Cherry Orchard'' has announced ''I bought it!'' -- it being the beloved grove of cherry trees that represents everything safe and sturdy about the world to its former owner, Mme. Ranevskaya.
English is superfluous at this moment because the sale registers so devastatingly on the delicate features of Marina Neyolova, the charismatic Russian actress who plays Ranevskaya in the Moscow Sovremennik Theater Company's exquisite production of ''The Cherry Orchard,'' which opened last night for a limited run at the Martin Beck Theater.
Ms. Neyolova, who portrayed Masha in the Sovremennik's revival of ''Three Sisters'' during the company's inaugural visit to Broadway last season, hovers as the heartbreaking center of gravity in this emotionally accessible and quintessentially Russian production. A giddy, prancing, airhead of a matriarch in the play's opening scenes, Ms. Neyolova pulls off the stunning trick of seeming to shrink and age as the full force of her destitution hits her. Her body bears the weight of vainglorious Lopakhin's victory; the shoulders stoop, the head bows, the muscles in the face become flaccid as she absorbs the news. Never has a transfer of property seemed so tragic.
In many ways, this ''Cherry Orchard,'' directed by Galina Volchek, the troupe's artistic director, is superior to her admirable ''Three Sisters'' of last season. For one, the production looks a lot better. Like the increasingly prosperous Moscow of the 1990's, the company seems to have had a makeover. Banished is the clunky, Soviet-era stage design (the bridge that spanned the set of ''Three Sisters'' was a particularly weird touch); in its place, the designers Pavel Kaplevich and Pyotr Kirillov create a spare and lovely representation of a country house, framed by a stand of trees, bathed in light of lavender and cerulean, that look as if they were made of sheets of paper that have charred and shriveled.
For another, the actors, many of whom appeared in ''Three Sisters,'' are playing characters closer to their own ages, which is one less hurdle to overcome for an American audience struggling to keep those pesky headphones in place. The Sovremennik's acting style borders at times on the histrionic; the minor comic characters, unfortunately, have not traveled well. But each of the major players locates something pure and honest in their famous roles, parts that can seem handicapped by a prevailing sense of falseness and affectation in American productions of this play about relinquishing the past and making way for a new age.
Here, for instance, is a Trofimov, the doctrinaire, perpetual student, who proves to be more than a tiresome pedant. In Aleksandr Khovansky's ardent portrayal, he is a lover, too, in spite of Ranevskaya's angry dressing-down of him. In Gayev, the spoiled, distracted brother of Ranevskaya who is almost as irresponsible with money as she is, Igor Kvasha is both nobleman and endearingly foolish little boy. Sergei Garmash's Lopakhin, the nouveau riche bumpkin who represents the brash class of usurpers pushing the landed gentry to the sidelines, is Donald Trump in what can only be described as a power cutaway. His bearing suggests his new acquisitions: confidence and rubles.
With the exception of Dunyasha, the predatory chambermaid, the women of ''The Cherry Orchard'' are a more fragile lot. Mariya Anikanova confers a porcelain beauty on Anya, the younger daughter, while Yelena Yakovleva's Varya, the plainer daughter who keeps the house accounts and waits for the marriage proposal that never comes, conveys the pathos and soulfulness of a disappointed heroine out of Tennessee Williams. And Galina Petrova, in the ordinarily difficult role of Charlotta, the ditzy governess, takes the woman's anger and sense of displacement and offers some rationale for her stunts and musings.
It's an appropriate time for a Russian company to be performing a play in this country about the social upheaval, once upon a time, in theirs. In the bourgeois ambition of Lopakhin, especially, you can feel the worlds of pre-revolutionary and post-Soviet Russia in a kind of alignment. It is funny, too, to hear Gayev, the aristocrat, speak of his need to be a working stiff. ''I am a bank clerk now,'' he says. ''I am a financier,'' which, you can imagine, some of the reinvented members of the old Russian guard saying on the streets of Moscow today.
To Ms. Volchek's credit, the work of these actors, sumptuously outfitted by Vyacheslav Zaitsev, is communicated vividly in this 2-hour-50-minute production. Not even the translator, reciting Chekhov's words in a monotone, can muffle the effect they create.
It is hardest of all to imagine anyone or anything muting Ms. Neyolova's artistry. In the plumage of her extravagant finery, she is a faded bird of luxury mourning the life she can't quite believe she has been compelled to sign away. The play ends with the sounds of cherry trees being chopped down; in Ms. Neyolova's wounded eyes, you can see that the ax, too, is being taken to her heart.