“Alienation” drones Ivanov’s English-learning tape in the second act of the production. The audience chuckles; the tape is precisely what Ivanov is using to distance himself from the world around him. As I watched Ivanov destroy his happiness, wallowing in his own guilt and failure without moving to change his behavior, I wondered why I should care.

The direction of the play did all it could to keep the audience from becoming emotionally attached. It wasn’t just the supertitles—a helpful necessity, as the Iranian Mehr Theatre Group performs in Persian. Rather, it was the constant reminders that we were watching a play. “I’ve played this scene before,” Ivanov mentions when confronted about his bride’s pre-wedding tears.  When he puts his English tape back on, he lies stunned on his bed as the voice summarizes Chekhov’s Ivanov, and, finally, urges him to practice his language skills by repeating the title character’s closing monologue, phrase by phrase.

You’ll probably have gathered by now that this production isn’t quite a direct translation of Chekhov’s play. Ivanov dreams of immigrating to America; Anna is dying of cancer (the classic TB substitute); SMSes and e-mails keep the characters in contact; women complain about their headscarves and gossip about tattoos.  Most crucially, this Ivanov never moves. Sure, he occasionally changes his position on the stage, but he doesn’t have the old self and new self that we see in Chekhov’s play. In this version, Ivanov’s old self lives only in Sasha’s and Anna’s memories, and the Ivanov onstage is too apathetic to even enact Chekhov’s melodramatic ending. He ends as he begins—alone, listening to his English tapes.

And this is precisely the play’s problem. With a static, boring Ivanov at its center, the piece seems to move slowly. It’s unclear why the other characters care for this loser, why a stunning and intelligent woman like Sasha would pursue him so relentlessly, why it would take her until their wedding day to figure out that he is a nothing. Perhaps if the director had shown us Ivanov’s descent into apathy, we could have cared about him as Sasha seems to. But even in the second act, when Sasha and Ivanov talk at the Lebedevs’ party, there is no spark in his eyes or movements. He is already dead, and dead men don’t make for very engaging main characters.

The most interesting portions of the play are the rare moments when Ivanov is offstage. Act three’s opening, with Lebedev, Martha, and Borkin callously cooking on Anna’s bed and wiping their hands on her sheets while she is at the hospital, provides a welcome change from Ivanov’s selfish dullness. Here are three characters who might not be particularly good people, but who talk and laugh and live, rather than pondering their failings alone. In fact, all of the characters surrounding Ivanov are compellingly unique and alive. They emphasize his isolation well, and their strong contrast with him is undoubtedly a deliberate choice on the director’s part. But they aren’t quite sufficient to overpower Ivanov’s listlessness and connect with the audience.

Touring a play internationally is not easy, and the technical team of Ivanov deserves mention for making it look like it is. Smooth transitions are complemented by well-timed music, and every scene is both clearly and atmospherically lit, with a combination of conventional stage lights, neon accents, and strings of fairy lights. The moving projections during the English lessons—which appear on the bed, the sheets, and even a clothesline of drying T-shirts—are flawlessly executed and add a note of humor into an otherwise-bleak play.

When I bought tickets for an updated Russian play to be performed in Persian with German and English supertitles, I expected something crazy. Instead, I got a well-executed but plodding parable about self-centeredness and isolation. “We are all Ivanov,” the marketing blurb tells us. It’s a terrible assertion to contemplate—a packed theatre could watch each of our lives, without being able to bring themselves to care for any of us at all. But the play’s other characters prove the contrary and thank goodness for that.

This review originally appeared in My German Season on September 1, 2014, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.