A New Uncle Vanya

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Uncle Vanya By Anton Chekhov Six years after he virtually showed up in Times Square in Louis Malle's brilliant though somewhat misleadingly titled film Vanya on 42nd Street, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya has become something of a regular visitor to New York. The last Lincoln Center Festival included a mostly good Uncle Vanya from the Gate Theater in Dublin, starring Niall Buggy. Jeff Cohen's uneven but oddly interesting West Virginian adaptation Uncle Jack opened in the fall at the Worth Street Theater, with a splendid performance by Gerald Anthony in the title role. And now the Roundabout Theater has brought the original play to Broadway?well, really a slick new British translation of it by Mike Poulton?in a production directed by Michael Mayer and starring the extraordinary Derek Jacobi. Supported by Poulton's streamlined and abbreviated language and posh, "above it all" humor (Vanya: "We're going to have a storm." Flash of lightning. "Right on cue."), Mayer's emphasis is on exaggerated self-indulgence and self-conscious clowning. This may be jarring to some Chekhov fans, particularly those accustomed to dull realistic productions, or even great realistic ones from the likes of Peter Stein and Peter Brook. Actually, though, it's squarely in line with the trend of "remedial" or "revisionist" Chekhov seen across Europe and America in recent years. Mayer isn't nearly as aggressive as some have been?a German Ivanov I saw in the early 1990s stripped the play of all specific location, and a Bulgarian Three Sisters that visited the Festival d'Avignon in 1996 rearranged whole passages of dialogue to sustain its constant stress on irony?but he's not shy about, say, treating some characters as if they were really written by Samuel Beckett. (The director Andrea Breth, perhaps coincidentally, did this with all the characters in her 1998 Uncle Vanya at the Schaubuhne in Berlin).

    Hence, Serebryakov?the pompous and fraudulent old art professor whose visit to his family's country estate with his beautiful, young wife Yelena (Laura Linney) causes the disruption that sets the play in motion?is played by the marvelous Brian Murray as an obvious variation on Pozzo, puffed up with flatulent self-pity, hypochondriacal rheumatism, prissy formalities he doesn't believe in himself and emptily commanding oratory he doesn't expect anyone else to take seriously. When he quips to the gathered family in Act III that "I asked you here...to inform you that a government inspector is about to pay us a visit," he seems to wink at the Atkinson Theater audience, as if someone there might bring him a pipe or a folding stool. Each of the four acts contains at least one "non-exit" in which someone says he's leaving and then, like Didi and Gogo, doesn't move. Playing Sonya?the professor's daughter who is hopelessly in love with Dr. Astrov (Roger Rees)?Amy Ryan gets a laugh at one point by imitating the flat, monotone cadence of Clov in Endgame ("I can't. It's better not knowing?better to go on hoping").

    There's nothing especially perverse or distracting about these Beckett allusions. It's fairly clear that they're part of a larger plan to stress that every character in the play is stuck on some sort of treadmill?Astrov with his alcohol, Sonya with her pining for Astrov, Yelena with her ridiculous marriage, Serebryakov with his selfish profligacy that squandered his sister's inheritance and will squander Yelena's youth, Vanya with his pining for Yelena and lifelong dedication to managing the estate for a man who barely acknowledged him. What's remarkable is the amount of creative energy the production devotes to keeping the various inertias isolated and discrete.

    Even Tony Walton's set?a series of droll, multilayered scenes backed by a lush birch forest?contributes to the peculiar effort with increasingly Expressionistic distortions that reinforce the idea of self-indulgently subjective perspective. The dilapidated veranda scene of Act I, for instance, is a magnificent assemblage of transparent walls, soaring, weather-beaten pillars and window panels, and a patched straw roof and exposed ceiling-lathing inside whose perspective lines culminate in different vanishing points. In subsequent acts, a scale-model of this veranda set sits upstage in a circle of light as a totemic, self-referential prop (the designer as guiding ego), and the walls of the room-sets grow more and more solid and substantial (perhaps as a trope for healing, or imprisonment).

    I can't remember seeing any reputable Chekhov production in which ensemble acting felt more beside the point than in this one. Jacobi is excellent as Vanya, genuinely moving with his puffy-eyed, intelligent idiocy and energetic droopiness, and Rees is scarcely less memorable as Astrov, tense, perfunctory and earnest with a sunken-cheeked, squirrelly charm. Both are wonderful to watch, as is Murray, and they don't duck any responsibility to make sense of their relationships with others. The show's overwhelming feeling of dissociation nevertheless applies to them as much as to the others. There's a queer overabundance of wide arm thrusts and other anomalously bold gestures (which sometimes read as unnecessary efforts to compensate for the large Broadway house, or the thick skin of Broadway spectators) and a certain dislocation that arises from the fact that some cast members speak the flagrantly British text with British accents and some don't.

    One who doesn't is David Patrick Kelly, an actor impossible to look away from with his inimitable inward-oriented intensity, who plays beautifully mournful guitar as the ostensibly superfluous family friend Telegin but otherwise insulates that character within a comic bubble even more impenetrable than Serebryakov's. Another is Linney, who plays Yelena as a shallow debutante who thinks she can trade entirely on looks and spiffy clothes. Her performance is so devoid of nuance and relational purpose that it ruins the usually indestructible Act II curtain and throws the play's sexual power balance completely out of whack; here, homely, provincial Sonya comes off as more worldly and manipulative than her pulchritudinous rival.

    Mayer's Uncle Vanya reminds me in some ways of Howard Davies' production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh that ran on Broadway last year, starring Kevin Spacey, and also had trouble achieving a believable ensemble effect. Before opening, Spacey talked in numerous interviews about ensemble values, refused to put his name over the title, used a group dressing room and accepted the minimum union salary to make the show financially possible. In the end, though, he and Davies obviously decided that the show would have no appeal unless Spacey-the-celebrity stood out on-stage the entire time like a deluxe sports car at an auto show. Mayer is a young man on the way up very fast who nevertheless wants to be taken seriously (A View from the Bridge and Side Man proved that). In the case of Vanya, he found himself in the same position as Davies but cleverly identified a way to make the work's themes serve his dual need...or seem to. Hence the strangely fascinating, hybrid spectacle of a generally unsubtle production that tries to popularize one of modern drama's most subtle and heartbreaking conceptions?a pre-Beckettian, quasi-realistic picture of permanent stasis?using ordinary tokens of egomania.

    Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th St. (8th Ave.), 307-4100.

    Yard Gal By Rebecca Prichard Rebecca Prichard's Yard Gal was originally produced at London's Royal Court Theatre and commissioned by Clean Break, a theater company in the UK dedicated to providing opportunities for female ex-offenders, ex-prisoners and prisoners. Through enacted flashbacks and other dialogue between two young women, Boo (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Marie (Amelia Lowdell), the play dramatizes the world of a violent girl gang: a sphere of experience that gets written and talked about much less than its male counterpart. The women speak in an East London argot that often sounds like a foreign language (a glossary is included in the program), telling numerous stories about drugs, prostitution, rip-off schemes, rave parties and more, eventually explaining the string of violent and self-destructive incidents that lead to their falling out with one another (and possibly growing up). The hour-and-40-minute action has real dramatic power for a half hour or so, mainly because the milieu is so strange and because the actresses are excellent at being frightening and appealing at the same time. The stories they tell, however (and especially their overarching story of growing apart after serious crisis), soon become much too familiar, explanatory and moralistic to sustain the quality of attention won at the outset. Nor does the physical activity they engage in with four prop-filled, illuminated cubes scattered about the stage have a hope of compensating (direction by Gemma Bodinetz). Among the plays dealing with UK drugs-and-kids culture that have recently come to New York are Shopping and Fucking, Mojo and Trainspotting. After these and the numerous other media treatments we have seen of the same material, a new playwright needs to come to us with quite a bit more than a few fresh facts.

    MCC Theater, 120 W. 28th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 727-7765, through May 21.