February 18, 2009

"Uncle Vanya" is Unfocused

“Do your own thing” was a major mantra back when I was in college. Now, the sentiment seems to have been revived in the Classic Stage Company’s new production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Because everyone involved—from the actors to the designers—seems to be following his or her individual bliss. You might have thought director Austin Pendleton, an old-hand at Chekhov as both an actor and a director, would have kept everyone marching in the same direction but like an indulgent parent, he has let them all go their own way. And the result is a production that is all over the place.

This show has gotten a lot of attention for two reasons. One: it comes in the middle of a coincidental Chekhov festival, with the appearances of The Seagull on Broadway last fall, The Cherry Orchard at BAM now and the upcoming Three Sisters from the Classical Theatre of Harlem opening later this month. Two: it has a starry cast lead by the real-life couple Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard (whom one critic has called our local Brangelina) as, respectively, Yelena, a bored trophy wife, and Astrov, the environmentally-conscious doctor who loves her; Tony-winner Dennis O’Hare (who’s recently gotten lots of big screen time playing villains in the movies "Milk" and "Changeling") in the title role; and Mamie Gummer (whose mother is Meryl Streep) as the plain-Jane niece Sofya.

Only Gummer worked for me. She gives her character a gawky poignancy that seems most in keeping with Chekhov’s theme of repressed and thwarted dreams. Yelena is supposed to express her disillusionment through a restless ennui but Gyllenhaal is so languid that my attention kept wandering to the details of the beautiful period costumes Suzy Benzinger has designed for her. And I didn’t like Sarsgaard any more in this than I liked him as Trigorin in The Seagull. I’m a big fan of Sarsgaard’s movie work and I’m all for actors stretching and taking roles outside their comfort zone but try as he might, Sarsgaard seems as at ease in Chekhov as a skinny kid in a superhero’s suit.

But it was O’Hare who drove me up a wall. He has said that Uncle Vanya is his first professional production of Chekhov and he plays the title character as though he were the dacha’s resident smart ass—willing to do anything, including literally chewing the scenery, to get a laugh. This might have worked if Pendleton had decided to give the entire production a similar contemporary sensibility; instead O’Hare seems to have time-traveled in from a Judd Apatow flick.

The design team appears to have had just as difficult a time deciding what to make of the production. The talented set designer Santo Loquasto has created a beautifully atmospheric two-story house. But the actors seldom use the upper level and it’s hard to see what’s happening when they move to the back of the large set. If you’re sitting in the seats on either side of the three-sided stage, it’s a challenge to see anything since supporting beams block so many sight lines. And because the actors vary so radically in the way they deliver their lines, sound designer Daniel Baker apparently has had a tough time figuring out how to amplify them so that you can hear everything that’s being said.

After the show, my friend Ellie and I left CSC’s 13th Street theater in search of a drink but the neighborhood bars that Ellie likes were closed or so crowded that we ended up walking over to the West Village where we found seats at the bar of Mario Batali’s Otto and treated ourselves to drinks and a couple of plates of his delicious and surprisingly affordable antipasti. On the way there, Ellie, a former actress and a longtime Chekhov lover, asked me what I’d liked about the production. “Nothing,” I snapped and then changed the subject. My response was an overstatement. But, alas, not by much.

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