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