Man in the Midst of a Nervous Breakdown

Ethan Hawke in the title role of Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” directed by Austin Pendleton and running through December 9. | JOAN MARCUS

I’m not crazy about tragedies about crazy people whose mental illness –– rather than a tragic flaw –– explains their downfall. The tragedy of Willy Loman, with all those voices in his head, wasn’t the hollowness of the American Dream, but a character without access to good meds.

Chekhov’s “Ivanov” at the Classic Stage Company is a hot steeping mess of crazy, redeemed by an incredibly intense performance by Ethan Hawke in the lead. It is three hours of non-stop depression and self-destruction that may end predictably (“Chekhov’s gun,” always sure to go off according to theater lore, makes its appearance in the opening scene). Nonetheless, it is a wonder to behold, especially in the close quarters at CSC, where the audience hugs a stage full of characters desperately in need of hugs –– or at least some Prozac, a good century away from being invented.

Instead, the characters consume an inordinate amount of vodka that we now know does not drown our sorrows but exacerbates them. Santo Loquasto’s dingy set and Marco Piemontese’s costumes of faded pastels and earth tones add to the down mood.

Chekhov wrote “Ivanov” in 1887, nine years before commencing his most mature work (“Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters,” and “Cherry Orchard”) that immortalized him just before his untimely death at 44 in 1904. Kudos to CSC for including this early work in its Chekhov Cycle, as it is rarely performed. (The last Broadway productions starred Kevin Kline at Lincoln Center in 1997 and John Gielgud on Broadway in ’66.)

When Chekhov got the commission for “Ivanov,” he wrote a friend that he “would make a good job of it because I really know how to play on people’s nerves,” and he poured out a script in two weeks. When it opened, he called it “a wretched piece of crap” that upset the audience so much they were “nearly coming to blows.” Apparently, they were more upset by the long stretches of naturalistic interactions between the troubled characters than about the dramatic introductions of infidelity and suicide. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, as T.S. Eliot said.

When the audience enters at CSC, Ivanov (Hawke) is already lying in bed in the middle of day, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on a book, but often curling up in a hopeless ball trying to sleep. He’s got the sadz bad and knows it, indifferent to his beautiful but sickly wife, Anna (Joely Richardson), and turned on by a friend’s daughter, Sasha (Juliet Rylance), though unable to let her love take him away from his misery.

Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the upbeat, go-getter manager of Ivanov’s estate whose optimism makes Ivanov even more depressed. Lvov, the local doctor (Jonathan Marc Sherman), relentlessly equates Ivanov’s down mood with moral sloth and gets no argument from Ivanov, who accepts these condemnations and has the self-awareness to know he cannot do anything about them.

Director Austin Pendleton, who ably stepped into the role of Ivanov’s friend Lebedev when Louis Zorich became indisposed, wants us to see the absurdity in all of these interactions, and there is laughter to be had, especially in the funny pronouncements of Lebedev and, more so, Count Shabelsky (George Morfogen), Ivanov’s uncle. These passages feel more like Samuel Beckett (“Waiting for Ivanov to Kill Himself”) than Chekhov or the Hamlet that Ivanov himself quotes, often punctuated by yelling (to wake the audience up?) and some inaudible whispering (to get us to lean in and listen hard?). It is difficult to hold our attention when the dramatic arc is clearly not going anywhere, but this game company puts their all into trying in performances large and small.

The triumph of this production is that Hawke does make us care about the deeply troubled Ivanov, precisely because he fully humanizes him, warts (including some disturbing treatment of his once-Jewish wife) and all. For all his craziness, he is not deluded and shows us all too clearly the pain that drives him to his end.

“When there is hope, you can be happy — even in old age,” the Count says. None of that for Ivanov.

IVANOV | Classic Stage Company | 136 E. 13th St. | Through Dec. 9 ; Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m.; Plus Nov. 21 & Dec. 5 at 3 p.m.; Nov. 25 at 8 p.m.; No evening performances Nov. 21-23 | $55-65 | or 212-352-3101