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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 7, 2000. All rights reserved.
Simon Saltzman on Broadway: `Uncle Vanya’
Derek Jacoby as Uncle Vanya, Roger Rees as Astrov,
Laura Linney as Yelena, and Brian Murray as Serabryakov — does
such a cast for Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" inspire gleeful expectation?
Particularly for those who had their appetite for Chekhov whetted
by McCarter’s recent rewarding production of "The Cherry Orchard."
Yet have you ever tried to convince someone unfamiliar with the plays
of Chekhov just how funny, exhilarating, and entertaining they can
be as you watch virtually nothing happen to a bunch of depressing
intellectuals hanging around in morbid inertia for a couple of hours?
There seems to a general celebration among theater lovers, companies,
and audiences alike whenever a Chekhov play is announced. It is as
if a clarion call to sanity has been sounded, both esthetic and practical.
It has been said of his 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 validated — almost to a fault in director Michael Mayer’s
relentlessly chipper and choppy staging for the Roundabout Theater
— is a ripe atmosphere for actors who dazzle us with their cumulatively
antsy, languorous, and intense behavior. This somewhat unsettling
"Uncle Vanya," with a reasonable new translation by Mike Poulton,
may not be one to be appreciated for the illuminating silences but
rather for the realization that, in the words of Dr. Astrov (Roger
Rees), we are "surrounded by a bunch of eccentrics."
"Uncle Vanya" may be the least well-known of Chekhov’s four
dramatic masterpieces, but its unrelenting psychological persuasiveness
— even when excessively dominated by the larger-than-life performances
we get here — is still felt. 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, Mayer’s direction could be faulted for evading the poignant
Last seen on Broadway in "Breaking the Code," and in the acclaimed
Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of "Much Ado About Nothing"
(for which he won a Tony), and "Cyrano," Derek Jacoby may
be most familiar to you as the title character in the television series
"I, Claudius." Notwithstanding his chameleon-like abilities,
Jacoby has found, in the role of Vanya (repeating the role he played
in London and Chichester), an incendiary and volatile personality.
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 Elena (Laura Linney), but with tragedy
as well, as the play advances to its satirically dignified conclusion.
Jacoby works rather too hard to provide us with the unabashed anguish
that Vanya gets from his pathetic romantic encounters with Elena,
as well as with his 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, Jacoby 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.
Although Brian Murray, who flirts with a comically over-the-top performance
as the phony, scholarly, gout-ridden brother-in-law Serebryakov, and
Roger Rees, who strains for idiosyncratic insouciance in the pivotal
role of Dr. Ostrov, are entertaining, they somehow feel isolated even
from director Mayer’s broadly frivolous mise-en-scene. Then there
is the radiant Linney, as Elena, who defines not only a creature both
beautiful and bored by life, but also a sly cat who knows where to
find her comforts.
Director Mayer, who was at the helm of last year’s Tony winner "Sideman,"
has, in fact, staged an unsettling "Uncle Vanya" that is as
much fun in its parts as it is feckless on the whole. Sturdy supporting
performances by Anne Pitoniak, as the aged housekeeper, Rita Gam,
as the family matriarch, David Patrick Kelly, as the meek, impoverished
guitar-playing neighbor Telegin, and Amy Ryan as Sonya, have the dramatic
conceits we can also observe in Tony Walton’s rather spectacular evocation
of a crumbling rustic estate. HH
New York, 212-307-4100. $35 to $65.
Here is a new comedy, arriving by way of a successful
run in Pasadena, that made me think, despite its contemporary language
and characters, of those wonderful old-fashioned, yet irresistibly
sassy Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy film comedies. You know,
the ones in which the rich society girl falls in love with the rough-around-the-edges
low-rent guy. In that vein, `Panache’ author Dan Gordon has written
a charming romantic comedy about two people who, however unlikely
it is for them to meet or to like each other, eventually do. That
is after a lot of bright talk, cautious flirting, and a humorously
extended testing of their uneasy relationship.
Harry Baldwin (Eric Pierpoint) is a struggling artist who works in
a greasy spoon, and sleeps with a baseball bat in a crummy city apartment.
Because he likes to gamble and hang out with Jumbo (Wesley Thompson),
an African-American loan shark, who is also his best friend, the bat
is his protection.
Harry’s bat is no protection, however, from the full-scale attack
of Kathleen Trafalgar (Lisa Pelikan), an impetuous, spoiled, unhappily
married socialite, who has tracked Harry down. Harry, it seems, has
registered the name "Panache" for his vanity license plate.
Now Kathleen will pay anything for the name she covets, as she will
also do anything to keep coming back again and again to see the surly
yet attractive man who intrigues her.
Harry is prevented from pursuing an affair with the aggressive Kathleen
by the haunting memory of his wife (Jillian McWhirter); yet Kathleen
is eager to inspire and seduce this man who shows so much talent.
Like a young Tracy, Pierpoint has that sensitive and tough facade
that makes him a perfect foil to Pelikan’s Hepburn-ish reckless eccentricities.
Director David A. Cox directs with old-fashioned finesse, as Gordon’s
play makes us root for the romantic, not terribly believable or convincing,
finish. I was, however, pleased.HH
can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
Other ticket outlets: Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; Ticketmaster,
800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.
For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,
and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour hotline. The
TKTS same-day, half-price ticket booth at Broadway & 47th is open
daily, 3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for
Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday
The lower Manhattan booth, on the Mezzanine at 2 World Trade Center,
is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 11
a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Matinee tickets are sold at this location on the
day prior to performance. Cash or travelers’ checks only; no credit
cards. Visit TKTS at: www.tdf.org.
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