A New Uncle Vanya

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
years after he virtually showed up in Times Square in Louis Malle’s brilliant
though somewhat misleadingly titled film Vanya on 42nd Street, Chekhov’s
Uncle Vanya has become something of a regular visitor to New York. The
last Lincoln Center Festival included a mostly good Uncle Vanya from
the Gate Theater in Dublin, starring Niall Buggy. Jeff Cohen’s uneven but
oddly interesting West Virginian adaptation Uncle Jack opened in the
fall at the Worth Street Theater, with a splendid performance by Gerald Anthony
in the title role. And now the Roundabout Theater has brought the original play
to Broadway–well, really a slick new British translation of it by Mike
Poulton–in a production directed by Michael Mayer and starring the extraordinary
Derek Jacobi.

Supported by Poulton’s
streamlined and abbreviated language and posh, "above it all" humor
(Vanya: "We’re going to have a storm." Flash of lightning. "Right
on cue."), Mayer’s emphasis is on exaggerated self-indulgence and
self-conscious clowning. This may be jarring to some Chekhov fans, particularly
those accustomed to dull realistic productions, or even great realistic ones
from the likes of Peter Stein and Peter Brook. Actually, though, it’s squarely
in line with the trend of "remedial" or "revisionist" Chekhov
seen across Europe and America in recent years. Mayer isn’t nearly as aggressive
as some have been–a German Ivanov I saw in the early 1990s stripped
the play of all specific location, and a Bulgarian Three Sisters that
visited the Festival d’Avignon in 1996 rearranged whole passages of dialogue
to sustain its constant stress on irony–but he’s not shy about, say,
treating some characters as if they were really written by Samuel Beckett. (The
director Andrea Breth, perhaps coincidentally, did this with all the characters
in her 1998 Uncle Vanya at the Schaubuhne in Berlin).

Hence, Serebryakov–the
pompous and fraudulent old art professor whose visit to his family’s country
estate with his beautiful, young wife Yelena (Laura Linney) causes the disruption
that sets the play in motion–is played by the marvelous Brian Murray as
an obvious variation on Pozzo, puffed up with flatulent self-pity, hypochondriacal
rheumatism, prissy formalities he doesn’t believe in himself and emptily
commanding oratory he doesn’t expect anyone else to take seriously. When
he quips to the gathered family in Act III that "I asked you here…to
inform you that a government inspector is about to pay us a visit," he
seems to wink at the Atkinson Theater audience, as if someone there might bring
him a pipe or a folding stool. Each of the four acts contains at least one "non-exit"
in which someone says he’s leaving and then, like Didi and Gogo, doesn’t
move. Playing Sonya–the professor’s daughter who is hopelessly in
love with Dr. Astrov (Roger Rees)–Amy Ryan gets a laugh at one point by
imitating the flat, monotone cadence of Clov in Endgame ("I can’t.
It’s better not knowing–better to go on hoping").

There’s nothing especially
perverse or distracting about these Beckett allusions. It’s fairly clear
that they’re part of a larger plan to stress that every character in the
play is stuck on some sort of treadmill–Astrov with his alcohol, Sonya
with her pining for Astrov, Yelena with her ridiculous marriage, Serebryakov
with his selfish profligacy that squandered his sister’s inheritance and
will squander Yelena’s youth, Vanya with his pining for Yelena and lifelong
dedication to managing the estate for a man who barely acknowledged him. What’s
remarkable is the amount of creative energy the production devotes to keeping
the various inertias isolated and discrete.

Even Tony Walton’s
set–a series of droll, multilayered scenes backed by a lush birch forest–contributes
to the peculiar effort with increasingly Expressionistic distortions that reinforce
the idea of self-indulgently subjective perspective. The dilapidated veranda
scene of Act I, for instance, is a magnificent assemblage of transparent walls,
soaring, weather-beaten pillars and window panels, and a patched straw roof
and exposed ceiling-lathing inside whose perspective lines culminate in different
vanishing points. In subsequent acts, a scale-model of this veranda set sits
upstage in a circle of light as a totemic, self-referential prop (the designer
as guiding ego), and the walls of the room-sets grow more and more solid and
substantial (perhaps as a trope for healing, or imprisonment).

I can’t remember seeing
any reputable Chekhov production in which ensemble acting felt more beside the
point than in this one. Jacobi is excellent as Vanya, genuinely moving with
his puffy-eyed, intelligent idiocy and energetic droopiness, and Rees is scarcely
less memorable as Astrov, tense, perfunctory and earnest with a sunken-cheeked,
squirrelly charm. Both are wonderful to watch, as is Murray, and they don’t
duck any responsibility to make sense of their relationships with others. The
show’s overwhelming feeling of dissociation nevertheless applies to them
as much as to the others. There’s a queer overabundance of wide arm thrusts
and other anomalously bold gestures (which sometimes read as unnecessary efforts
to compensate for the large Broadway house, or the thick skin of Broadway spectators)
and a certain dislocation that arises from the fact that some cast members speak
the flagrantly British text with British accents and some don’t.

One who doesn’t is
David Patrick Kelly, an actor impossible to look away from with his inimitable
inward-oriented intensity, who plays beautifully mournful guitar as the ostensibly
superfluous family friend Telegin but otherwise insulates that character within
a comic bubble even more impenetrable than Serebryakov’s. Another is Linney,
who plays Yelena as a shallow debutante who thinks she can trade entirely on
looks and spiffy clothes. Her performance is so devoid of nuance and relational
purpose that it ruins the usually indestructible Act II curtain and throws the
play’s sexual power balance completely out of whack; here, homely, provincial
Sonya comes off as more worldly and manipulative than her pulchritudinous rival.

Mayer’s Uncle Vanya
reminds me in some ways of Howard Davies’ production of O’Neill’s
The Iceman Cometh that ran on Broadway last year, starring Kevin Spacey,
and also had trouble achieving a believable ensemble effect. Before opening,
Spacey talked in numerous interviews about ensemble values, refused to put his
name over the title, used a group dressing room and accepted the minimum union
salary to make the show financially possible. In the end, though, he and Davies
obviously decided that the show would have no appeal unless Spacey-the-celebrity
stood out on-stage the entire time like a deluxe sports car at an auto show.
Mayer is a young man on the way up very fast who nevertheless wants to be taken
seriously (A View from the Bridge and Side Man proved that). In
the case of Vanya, he found himself in the same position as Davies but
cleverly identified a way to make the work’s themes serve his dual need…or
seem to. Hence the strangely fascinating, hybrid spectacle of a generally unsubtle
production that tries to popularize one of modern drama’s most subtle and
heartbreaking conceptions–a pre-Beckettian, quasi-realistic picture of
permanent stasis–using ordinary tokens of egomania.

Brooks Atkinson Theater,
256 W. 47th St. (8th Ave.), 307-4100.

Yard Gal
By Rebecca
Prichard’s Yard Gal was originally produced at London’s Royal
Court Theatre and commissioned by Clean Break, a theater company in the UK dedicated
to providing opportunities for female ex-offenders, ex-prisoners and prisoners.
Through enacted flashbacks and other dialogue between two young women, Boo (Sharon
Duncan-Brewster) and Marie (Amelia Lowdell), the play dramatizes the world of
a violent girl gang: a sphere of experience that gets written and talked about
much less than its male counterpart. The women speak in an East London argot
that often sounds like a foreign language (a glossary is included in the program),
telling numerous stories about drugs, prostitution, rip-off schemes, rave parties
and more, eventually explaining the string of violent and self-destructive incidents
that lead to their falling out with one another (and possibly growing up).

The hour-and-40-minute action
has real dramatic power for a half hour or so, mainly because the milieu is
so strange and because the actresses are excellent at being frightening and
appealing at the same time. The stories they tell, however (and especially their
overarching story of growing apart after serious crisis), soon become much too
familiar, explanatory and moralistic to sustain the quality of attention won
at the outset. Nor does the physical activity they engage in with four prop-filled,
illuminated cubes scattered about the stage have a hope of compensating (direction
by Gemma Bodinetz). Among the plays dealing with UK drugs-and-kids culture that
have recently come to New York are Shopping and Fucking, Mojo
and Trainspotting. After these and the numerous other media treatments
we have seen of the same material, a new playwright needs to come to us with
quite a bit more than a few fresh facts.

MCC Theater, 120 W. 28th
St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 727-7765, through May 21.