Perhaps it is these uncertain and troubling times that are encouraging some extremely unsettling/unorthodox productions of tried and true classics of dramatic literature. Recently (on Broadway), the dispassionate, aloof production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” almost evaporated before my eyes in a glaze of indifference. The current wildly skewed production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” is almost saved by Mary Louise Parker’s off-the-wall performance in the title role. Eccentricity also runs through the Classic Stage Company’s production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” but with satisfying results. No matter that purists may take exception to the spins the actors are putting on familiar (to them) characters.
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? Just watching and responding to Denis O’Hare’s tragically comical “Uncle Vanya” is to relinquish any preconceived notions you may have had about Chekhov’s most tormented titular character. O’Hare, whose performances both on Broadway and off (“Inherit the Wind,” “Take Me Out”) invariably result in critical huzzahs, is likely to create both pro and con responses.
We know Vanya as an incendiary and volatile personality. But it is something else to see O’Hare wrap Vanya’s ridiculous negations and oppositions to normality into behavior that will prompt him to balance a spoon on the end of his nose and leap over a swing with the impulsiveness of a child. 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 intoxicatingly beautiful Yelena (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but with tragedy as well, as the play advances to its satirically dignified conclusion.
Just as O’Hare isn’t fearful of allowing Vanya’s unabashed anguish to be perceived as ridiculous during his pathetic romantic encounters with Yelena, neither is he afraid to let loose the pent-up rage and impatience he harbors for her self-centered, pompous husband. The pleasure of O’Hare’s highly expressive Vanya is to see him not only switch gears from self-pitying passivity to unrestrained anger, but also to see his mood swings. It will break your heart watching the expression on his face change as he wearily accepts his unhappy life in the play’s climactic scenes.
What is offered, almost to a fault, in this refreshing but hardly perfect production under the direction of Austin Pendleton, is a ripe atmosphere for all the actors to amuse us with their cumulatively antsy, languorous, and intense behavior. Everyone seems to be responsive and at ease with the translation by Carol Rocamora.
There isn’t an instance during the play that we aren’t aware — in the words of Dr. Astrov (Peter Sarsgaard) — that we are “surrounded by a bunch of eccentrics.” Sarsgaard, who recently droned through “The Seagull,” is, in fact, startlingly commanding as the unsympathetic Dr. Astrov, who indelicately lusts after the gorgeous Yelena and callously rejects the pathetic and plain-looking Sofya (Mamie Gummer). And speaking of revelations, there is the wryly insinuating performance of Gyllenhaal, as the beautiful and bored-by-life Yelena, a sly calculating puss who knows where to find her comforts. Insignificant trivia: Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard have been romantically attached in real life since 2001 and they both have aa in their last names.
Pendleton’s staging is generally quite chipper and well considered, but he has evidently been confounded by the three-quarter in-the-round playing area. Except for those sitting in the center section, the ability for those on the sides to see the actors’ faces is too often compromised. In particular, this puts at a disadvantage those who can’t glimpse Mamie Gummer’s face or hear her (as she often speaks in whispers) as the unloved Sofya. I would have preferred if Suzy Benzinger’s period costumes hadn’t been so committed to the color brown unless everyone was expected to blend like all the other fixtures into Santo Loquasto’s conspicuously all brown two-story farm house.
Sturdy supporting performances by George Morgogen as the phony, scholarly and gout-ridden brother-in-law Serebryakov, Cyrilla Baer as the aging housekeeper, Delphi Harrington as the family matriarch, and Louis Zorich as the meek, impoverished guitar-playing neighbor, Telegin, do what they must with commendable esprit.
“Uncle Vanya” (first performed at the legendary Moscow Art theater in 1899, directed by Constantine Stanislavsky) may be the least well-known of Chekhov’s four dramatic masterpieces, but its unrelenting psychological persuasiveness gives capable actors enormous latitude and opportunities. It makes us feel almost giddy watching the ineffectual characters endlessly bemoan their boredom, self-indulgent regrets and unfulfilled longings over the course of one summer. If we consider that Chekhov has written an almost farcical example of aristocracy infected with idleness, Pendleton allows this to serve as the rule rather than over-stating the poignant psychological subtext. ***
“Uncle Vanya,” through Sunday, March 8, Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. $70 and $75. 212-352-3101.