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Uncle Vanya

The Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Chekhov’s comedy is performed in modern dress in a new version by Heidi Schreck.

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Steve Carell and Alison Pill in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

The Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is performed in modern dress in a new version by Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me).While the new adaptation is lucid and spare, it has also taken out all references to time and place, diluting Chekhov’s script. One assumes that this was to make the play more relevant to contemporary audiences, but it also diminishes the play’s  specificity. Where exactly is this farm? Who are these people? They seem to exist in a vacuum.

Things are not helped by Mini Lien’s bland setting that looks more like a furniture showroom than the family manse held for decades and passed down to the present inhabitants. The new adaptation reduces the plot to one more dysfunctional family story while Chekhov is always more than that. Even more damaging is that the direction by Lila Neugebauer (best known for new plays by Sarah DeLappe, Zoe Kazan, Kenneth Lonergan, Brandon Jacobs Jenkins, Tracy Letts and Annie Baker) has staged the play so that it is in isolated conversations, one that should be called Scenes from the Life of Uncle Vanya. The lighting design by Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper highlights this by isolating various characters with light changes. Kay Voyce’s costumes, except for the surprising brightly caftans of the grandmother, are characterless and monochromatic.

Alfred Molina and Anika Noni Rose in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

The production brings comedy film star Steve Carell back to the New York stage for the first time since 1995 in the title role. Unfortunately, his performance is stiff and unbending and sometimes disappears into the woodwork whereas the other actors demonstrate tremendous physicality throughout the play’s four acts. Here the lead part goes to William Jackson Harper as Dr. Astrov who gets the laughs that Carell doesn’t get and becomes the center of attention. While many famous actors have played this role from Laurence Olivier, to George C. Scott and Roger Rees, this switch unbalances the play which is rightly named after Vanya.

Chekhov’s play is about the unlived life, people complaining that life has passed them by and that they did not get to make their dreams come true. He considered his plays comedies as the audience is always way ahead of his characters: we see them make poor decisions and go on repeating the same bad habits. Why don’t his three sisters just move back to Moscow? Instead of wining and dining the neighborhood, why don’t they save the cherry orchard? The audience knows this but the benighted characters simply run around bemoaning their fate. Most American directors see this as tragicomedy and make their productions too grim. Neugebauer’s characters tend to get their laughs but the production never seems to gel and seems to be in isolated sequences.

William Jackson Harper and Anika Noni Rose in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

In Chekhov’s play, Vanya has toiled for 30 years to manage the farm that was bought for his beloved late sister on her marriage to Alexander, a professor of literature and philosophy. In recent years he has been helped by his niece Sonia who has been living there after the remarriage of her father to the beautiful Elena, almost not much older than she is. Vanya, Sonia and his mother Maria who worships the professor and an impoverished neighbor nicknamed Waffles due to his complexion all live in harmony. They are visited periodically by Dr. Astrov, the local doctor and scientist who is attempting to restore the forest in the area.

All that changes when retired Professor Alexander and his wife decide to live at the farm as life in the city has gotten too expensive for their income. He turns their routines upside down demanding meals at new times and waking up the servants in the middle of the night. Both Vanya and Astrov fall in love with Elena who does not seem to give them a second thought while they do everything to catch her eye. Vanya and Sonia take a long holiday from their work running the estate and nothing is getting done, and even Astrov stays at the farm when he should be tending to his work. Vanya who has always resented the professor who has all the women falling over him and writes about things he knows little about is incensed when the professor suggests they sell the property and invest it in something that pays more dividends. Where would Vanya, Sonia and Maria go? The professor has not thought that through.

The cast of the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin; set by Mimi Lien)

As the professor, British stage star Alfred Molina (Tony Nominations for Red, Fiddler on the Roof and Art) is rather bland and introverted, not fastidious or pedantic enough to make much of an impression. William Jackson Harper, nominated for both the The Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for his role in Primary Trust earlier this season, gives an expansive star turn as Dr. Astrov, funny, layered and focused, stealing the thunder from the other actors. As the object of all the men’s obsession, Anika Noni Rose (Tony Award for Caroline, or Change) is suitably bored and languid. However, she does not exude the sensuality that seems to attract all of the men. We don’t see the mystery that the men on stage see.

As Sonia, Alison Pill is sweet and sad, making her inexperience and naiveté work for this ingénue role. As her grandmother, Tony Award winner Jayne Houdyshell seems to be in a world of her own but fails to demonstrate her obsession with the professor’s mind and ideas. Mia Katigbak gives an understated performance as the nanny and housekeeper Marina who is responsible for keeping everything going. Jonathan Hadary is amusing as the pathetic hanger-on Waffles who is both penniless and without his wife who ran away the day after their wedding.

While Lila Neugebauer’s revival of Uncle Vanya in the new Heidi Schreck version is always easy to understand, it does the play a disservice in reducing it to its lowest terms. All of these characters have greater depth than is displayed here. Part of the problem is that this cast of stars never seems to gel into a real family, but the design elements and the new adaptation are also at fault. Should someone new to Chekhov or Uncle Vanya see this production? Only if they realize that this is not all there is to this modern classic.

Uncle Vanya (through June 16, 2024)

Lincoln Center Theater

Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.VanyaBroadway.com

Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (995 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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