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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Uncle Vanya’

It has been said of Anton Chekhov’s plays that the

real drama lies elusive in the silence between the words. This is

probably what makes the plays of Russia’s greatest dramatist so eternally

challenging. Whether a director chooses to stress rhythm, subtext,

or atmosphere, it is for him or her, and finally their actors, to

validate the choice. What is exquisitely validated almost to a fault

in Sam Mendes’ staging for London’s Donmar Warehouse is the extraordinary

use of sound, everyday sounds from the pouring of tea to the tapping

of a cane. Mendes’ dramatic, yet tenderly considered, staging can

now be seen (in repertory with Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night"

through February 9) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.

Mendes has created a ripe minimalist atmosphere for a company of actors

most of whom simply cannot refrain from dazzling us with their cumulatively

antsy, languorous, and intense behavior. This production — stripped

down to the barest of essentials — boasts a splendidly naturalistic

translation by Brian Friel that may be appreciated for the way its

resonates so easily on the ear.

"Uncle Vanya" may be the least well known of Chekhov’s four

dramatic masterpieces, but its unrelenting psychological persuasiveness

is palpable, even as it is currently dominated by one quite remarkable

performance. This is a play that can make us feel almost unnerved

watching the ineffectual characters endlessly bemoan their boredom,

self-indulgent regrets, and unfulfilled longings. Although Chekhov

has written an almost farcical example of aristocracy infected with

idleness, Mendes’ direction, with only one major misstep (about that

below), appears to go even farther to underline the poignant psychological

subtext.

Whether or not you were among the lucky ones to see

Britisher Simon Russell Beale’s Iago or Hamlet at BAM several years

ago, you must make the effort to see his revelatory and memorable

portrayal of Uncle Vanya. The somewhat short and squat, 42-year-old

actor nevertheless appears to be 10 feet tall in the role of Vanya

(repeating the award-winning performance he gave in London), giving

the incendiary and volatile title character a flavor of unexpected

humor, pathos and mostly uncommon eccentricity.

Having short-changed his own career for an indulged brother-in-law

— a once promising scholar — Vanya, the overseer of his estate,

flagrantly flirts not only with the ungrateful professor’s second

wife, the beautiful and bored Yelena (played with an intoxicating

air by Helen McCrory), but with tragedy as well, as the play advances

to its satirically dignified conclusion.

A pitiable figure of unabashed anguish, Beale yet manages to be quite

disarming in his pathetic romantic encounters with Yelena, as well

as with his growing impatience with her pompous and pampered husband.

Ultimately, if we are less a witness to Vanya’s self-pitying passivity

than to his unrestrained anger, Beale makes Vanya’s weary acceptance

of unhappy life in the play’s climactic scenes a welcome coda during

which even we get to take a deep breath.

A posturing David Bradley is funny without pandering for laughs as

the phony, scholarly brother-in-law, Serebryakov, and Mark Strong

achieves a perfect mix of idiosyncratic insouciance and lust in the

pivotal role of Dr. Ostrov, obviously hard-pressed to contain his

passion for Yelena. This is easy to understand considering the presence

of McCrory, who, as Yelena, defines not only a creature both beautiful

and bored by life, but also a sly cat who knows where to find her

comforts. With her face all but covered by a tilted chapeau, Yelena

makes her silent entrance with a slow measured walk across the expanse

of the stage, her only gesture is a quick flick of the goldenrod and

she’s off. It’s breathtaking and worth the price of admission.

Director Mendes, who conceived the long-running revisionist version

"Cabaret," and gained even greater recognition for his Academy

Award-winning direction of "American Beauty," has staged a

remarkably unadorned "Uncle Vanya," propelled directly by

the sheer force of words and attitudes. Cherry Morris, as the aged

housekeeper, Selina Cadell, as the family matriarch, and Anthony O’Donnell

give splendid supporting performances, as the meek-impoverished guitar-playing

neighbor Telegin.

My only quibble is with Emily Watson, whose otherwise appropriately

fine and sensitive performance, as the sturdily pathetic Sonya, goes

astray in the last scene when she resorts to tears. It’s a choice

that severely compromises the pain of rejection that we been sharing

with this valiant woman, who must continue to endure. Yet, within

designer Anthony Ward’s setting, that contains only one very long

table, the obligatory samovar, chairs, and a narrow river of grass,

an almost perfect "Uncle Vanya" is quite easy to endure. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Uncle Vanya, BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn,

718-636-4100. $30 to $75. To March 9.


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