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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Uncle Vanya’

It may be summertime on the Serebryakov estate, but

the august old poplar trees that loom over the melancholy characters

of Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" are without leaves. Framing

the action both outdoors and indoors in designer Michael Yeardon’s

mostly earth-colored settings for Emily Mann’s new and free adaptation

of what Chekhov originally called "scenes from country life,"

the poplars appear as despairing and life-weary as the characters

who move among them.

Except for an unused garden swing and the obligatory restorative samovar

that is often in use, country life here holds little joy. Although

this McCarter Theater staging does not work toward a distinctly Russian

ambiance, when it comes to designer Myung Hee Cho’s drab late-19th

century costumes, the persuasive sadness is unquestionably Russian.

In this play (and others by Chekhov), in which we get to watch a collection

of depressed intellectuals hang around in morbid inertia, much of

the pleasure simply depends on an ensemble of actors with the ability

to entertain. In varying degrees, this ensemble succeeds, telling

their tale with particularly American sensibilities.

Now that we have seen, over the course of her 13-year tenure, Emily

Mann’s rewarding production of "The Cherry Orchard" and "The

Three Sisters," "Uncle Vanya" can be said to complete

a trilogy of sorts. This co-production with La Jolla Playhouse (where

it will play from May 30 to June 29) deserves high marks if not our

highest praise. Given the appropriate window dressing, and the modernized,

easily accessible text, I wonder if Mann ever considered taking a

more daringly revisionist route by placing the action in America,

as Joshua Logan did with "The Wisteria Trees" (his very free

adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard").

What is validated (no matter the location) in Mann’s text, a collaboration

with Ellen Chances, a Princeton professor of Russian literature and

culture, is a ripe environment for the actors, who each in turn get

an opportunity to dazzle us with their cumulatively antsy, languorous,

and intense behavior.

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

dramatic masterpieces, but its unrelenting psychological persuasiveness

is felt even when not completely realized by an ensemble, such as

this, still feeling their way around the production.

The play can make us feel almost giddy 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, Mann’s attention to the deeper

psychological subtext becomes more persuasive in the play’s second

half.

Steven Skybell, last seen at McCarter in the 1999 production of "Portia

Coughlan," plays a bespectacled and bearded Vanya, relying heavily

on Vanya’s sudden, incendiary, negative responses to the requirements

of normal behavior. Having short-changed his own career for his indulged

brother-in-law, a once-promising scholar, Vanya, the overseer of the

estate, flagrantly flirts with Yelena (Natacha Roi), the self-absorbed

professor’s beautiful and bored second wife.

Skybell may be accused of slightly overdoing the anguish

that results from his pathetic romantic encounters with Yelena, as

well as his impatience with her pompous husband. Ultimately, if we

are less a witness to Vanya’s self-pitying passivity than to his unrestrained

anger, Skybell makes Vanya’s weary acceptance of an unhappy life,

in the play’s climactic scenes, a welcome coda during which even we

get to take a deep breath.

William Biff McGuire is excellent as the scholarly, and gout-ridden

brother-in-law Serebryakov. While he doesn’t indulge in the role’s

potential humor as much as he might, he earns our sympathy — something

we don’t usually feel for this character. In the pivotal role of the

despairing alcoholic Dr. Astrov, Michael Siberry artfully plays off

his own attractiveness, as the object of passion for two women.

Natacha Roi, as Yelena, is still in the process of carving out the

impulses that will more clearly define this woman who uses her beauty

and allure to assure the maintenance of her own creature comforts.

I can’t find enough praise for Amanda Plummer (whose unforgettable

performances in "A Taste of Honey" and "Agnes of God"

won her high honors), as the plain but lovesick Sonya. Despite the

unattractive dress she wears, and the stoicism that marks her character

in the face of humiliation, she never lets us forget that Sonya is

a woman as motivated by desire as she is by frustration.

Mann has, in fact, staged a worthy "Uncle Vanya," one which

is as yet more fun in its parts than as a satisfying whole. Sturdy

performances from Isa Thomas as the aging housekeeper, Georgine Hall

as the family matriarch, and Jonathan Hogan as the meek, impoverished

guitar-playing neighbor, support the Americanized verities on this

rusting Russian estate kept aglow by lighting designer Nancy Schertier.

— Simon Saltzman

Uncle Vanya, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Performances to Sunday, May 18. $24 to $47.

Also worthy of note: Emily Mann’s play "Meshugah," based

on the novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer and seen at McCarter in 1998,

will have its New York premiere on Thursday, May 15, (currently in

previews) at the Kirk Theater, 410 West 42nd Street.


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