I'm halfway through this engaging book. Janet Malcolm is following in Chekhov's footsteps - eg going to Yalta where his most famous short story A Lady with a Dog is set - and in the process, as well as telling us about her surly guides, and losing her suitcase at the airport and other stuff, she has a fair amount of illumination to offer on Chekhov's work as a whole.
It's not the plays in particular, and don't expect synopses or other student-friendly things, but if you want to get a general sense of Chekhov's work and character in a painless and engaging way, this is a very good place to go. It definitely helps to have read the odd play and story beforehand - so I think I'd say that even though it's an easy read, it's something to deepen your appreciation of Chekhov (though that word sounds too worthy - something to help you understand him more fully).
It's also worthwhile partly because along the way Malcolm meditates upon a number of things - even losing her suitcase, which she saw being spirited away "as if in a dream's slow motion" has something to teach her as she slogs up a hill to buy a replacement nightdress: the
"inevitable minor hardships of travel" help her break out of "the trance of tourism" - we're rarely, she says, as engaged in holiday places as we are in the places we frequent every day.
And that's a clue to what most appeals to me about this book so far: it's the sense that she is indeed actually trying to see those places and not have a kind of Chekhov-lovin' gauze over her eyes; and as she's an intelligent and articulate companion it's a pleasure to be with her, seeing how this or that detail she notices reminds her of some piece of Chekhov's writing. If you're a student and you need to know the plot of The Seagull, like, yesterday, forget it; if, however, you want some sense of how Chekhov's writing is all of a piece, and indeed the nature of fiction itself, and a book like Donald Rayfield's Understanding Chekhov is too much like hard work, then this has a great deal to recommend it.
If you're looking for more I'd recommend David Magarshack's Chekhov the Dramatist as a good basic guide to the plays; Rayfield's Understanding Chekhov is also worth reading although more sophisticated. Ronald Hingley's A New Life of Chekhov and Chekhov: a Literary Companion, ed. Toby Clyman, are both recommended by Stephen Mulrine in his Oberon Books translations of various Chekhov plays (and Mulrine's own brief introductory notes to those translations are concise and clear). The Clyman book, a collection of substantial essays about Chekhov-related matters by experts in their respective fields, is pricey so badger your library.