Off-Broadway: `Panache’

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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 7, 2000. All rights reserved.

Simon Saltzman on Broadway: `Uncle Vanya’

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

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

psychological subtext.

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

Uncle Vanya, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47 Street,

New York, 212-307-4100. $35 to $65.

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Off-Broadway: `Panache’

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

Panache, Players Theater, 115 Macdougal Street, New York,

212-239-6200. $35.

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Ticket Numbers

Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations

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

matinees.

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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