Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
718-636-4100. $30 to $75. To March 9.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.