By Brian Scott Lipton
A family sits around a table, discussing philosophy, sharing family grievances, eating and drinking. If it sounds like a Richard Nelson play, you’d be right. If it also sounds like Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, “Uncle Vanya,” you’d also be right. In what would seem like the ideal match, Nelson has taken on (as director and co-translator) one of the world’s most seminal works of theater,
The result – now being presented by the Hunter Theatre Project at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theater — doesn’t quite achieve perfection; but the naturalistic flow and sound of the work, along with the cutting of the script to a crisp 105 minutes, does make the usually three-hour work far more accessible for first-time viewers.
Moreover, the production still has enough strengths to satisfy those (like myself) who have seen multiple productions of the play. Its biggest asset is unquestionably the invaluable Jay O. Sanders, who hands in a memorable turn in the title role. Larger in size than many of his celebrated predecessors, Sanders’ stature makes his Vanya seem even more trapped in the cramped Russian house where he has toiled for 35 years, eschewing love, money or any semblance of independence to manage the family estate in order to support his ungrateful mother (Kate Kearney-Patch, whose role is now basically a cameo) and his equally unhappy niece Sonya (Yvonne Woods, a little less morose than expected, but still touching).
Most importantly, Vanya has devoted all of his waking hours to send money to his sister’s late husband, the pompous professor Alexander (a magnificent Jon DeVries, capturing the character’s egotism and selfishness with true expertise), who moves back in to the estate with his beautiful, decades-younger wife Elena (Celeste Arias, giving the character more intelligence than I’ve often seen, but falling a little short on the languid/boredom scale.)
The couple’s residency upends not only the house’s daily order, but the emotions of everyone on the premises from the family’s loyal nanny (a lovely Alice Cannon) to visiting doctor Astrov (Jesse Pennington, nicely dissolute) and especially Vanya, who becomes thoroughly besotted with Elena (as does Astrov, for whom Sonya pines). The late-in-play scene in which Vanya unleashes decades of pent-up emotions and becomes outwardly unhinged (and yet, in doing so, reveals his true self) is slightly terrifying, properly tragicomical and altogether masterfully handled.
Be aware, this is theater in the round, not the most ideal setting for this play (as no matter where you sit, the facial expressions of some characters – especially important here will be obscured). And for those really familiar with the play, the production can feel, at times, like one is watching a “greatest hits” version, as the shortened script rushes a bit from seminal moment to seminal moment. But Chekhov’s unparalleled view of the foibles of humanity is never fully diminished!
Photos: Joan Marcus
Uncle Vanya runs at the Frederick Loewe Theatre (695 Park Avenue) through October 14. Visit www.ovationtix.com for tickets.