Uncle Vanya

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New York Theater Review by Samuel L. Leiter

 

 

Large tables feature prominently in the first two acts of the Pearl Theatre’s current revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but this humdrum production brings very little to them. The Pearl, New York’s closest thing to a permanent stock or repertory company, is dedicated to using the same basic pool of actors for its annual season of classical revivals. This has the benefit of allowing these artists to expand their range and to demonstrate their versatility; it also has the downside of having to cast actors who may be less than perfect for their roles, even with the occasional new actors that join each year.

Uncle Vanya, first produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, didn’t receive a full-scale, English-language staging in New York until 1930; lately it’s been hard to ignore, what with lauded recent productions by the Soho Rep and Cate Blanchett, not to mention Christopher Durang’s farcical spinoff, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Of course, Chekhov, despite his small legacy of full-length plays, is now part of nearly every theatre season. As critic John Lahr recently said in a New York Times Book Review interview, his three favorite playwrights, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson, cannot be beat for their showing “of human emotion, for complexity of character, psychological nuance, and downright dramatic behavior.” The challenge, though, is realizing these qualities in the crucible of the living theatre. Neither director Hal Brooks (who provided a delightful version of The Rivals at the Pearl last spring) nor his hardworking cast succeed in capturing the characters’ emotional truth, complexity, or nuance, and they tend to overemphasize their dramatic behavior. Paul Schmidt’s otherwise smoothly colloquial translation, doesn’t help with its use of such distracting expressions as “son-of-a-bitch,” “old farts,” “freaks,” and the like.

Chekhov’s plays succeed only when they seem utterly natural, suggesting through artful manipulation of timing, movement, intonation, and pace the flow of everyday life, with all its incidental interruptions. An air of artifice and superficiality affects the performances here. The company does, however, succeed in clearly expressing the play’s dramatic arc. This concerns a group of middle-class Russians living on a provincial estate run on behalf of a famous old professor, Serebriakov (Dominic Cuskern), and his beautiful, much younger wife, Yelena (Rachel Botchan), by the self-sacrificing Vanya (Chris Mixon), brother of the professor’s first wife, and Sonia (Michelle Beck), daughter of the professor and Vanya’s sister. The presence of the professor and his wife, who have moved to the estate to save money, disrupts the daily routine of the residents, leading to frustrated romances, bitterness, disillusionment, and ennui. When the professor suggests selling the place, Vanya’s worm turns.

Typical of Chekhov, who mines his subjects for both pathos and gentle humor, people complain about their dreary lives while aspiring to something better, unrequited love is endemic, country life is compared to city life, and—as the family friend and physician, Dr. Astrov (Bradford Cover) notes—man’s hope lies hundreds of years hence. Interestingly, in light of current climate change activity, Astrov’s speeches about just that subject sound as contemporary as if they were written today. The writing is deceptively natural, but four lengthy soliloquies show Chekhov still unable to overcome nineteenth-century conventions.

Uncle Vanya is performed in Jason Simms’s elegantly simplified settings, which suggest the first act’s exterior, with its painted backdrop, and the three interior acts, which employ sheer curtains to serve as walls; unlike conventionally realistic Chekhov settings, a few, highly selective pieces of furniture suffice. All is pleasantly lit by Seth Reiser, Barbara A. Bell’s costumes are suitably in period, and M. Florian Staab’s sound design provides charming Russian melodies to cover the nicely choreographed scenic rearrangements. Apart from the design elements, however, little else captures the sense that we’re in turn-of-the-century Russia.

Brooks seeks to dispel any clouds of Russian gloom by stepping up the confrontations in a play constructed mainly of indirect action. There is a lot of shouting and full-out emotional expression, especially on the part of the actors playing Vanya and Astrov. Subtlety and nuance are rarely in view; pathos is even harder to find. The performers are competent; none are memorable. And there are casting problems. Cuskern’s professor, for example, seems not much older than the 47-year-old Vanya, despite his supposedly advanced age and decrepitude. And Beck is far too attractive for the decidedly plain Sonia.

The past two seasons have had Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, and Ivanov, with mixed results. Are The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters waiting in the wings?

Uncle Vanya continues through Oct. 12 at the Pearl Theater, 555 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-563-9261, www.pearltheatre.org.

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