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Uncle Vanya

nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
February 7, 2009

Classic Stage Company's Uncle Vanya is a very engaging production. Forthrightly Vanya-centric, it is briskly paced and features largely active characterizations that avoid the emotional wallowing and "now you will feel the pain of all that is Mother Russia" so common to Chekhov productions that Woody Allen and others have reveled in caricature of it. It is deft and smart and wastes no time; I was truly surprised when I checked my watch at the end of the night. While this show certainly could benefit from slightly higher or at least more discernible emotional stakes, the speed and lightness of this production triumphs and makes for a delightful Chekhovian experience.

Briefly, Uncle Vanya is somewhat a holiday in hell. Three generations of family are together at last and the tensions of that proximity drive them and their neighbors to breaking points. The people who have always lived on the estate are thrown from their usual roles and deeply out of their depth although still at "home." Vanya, his mother, his niece, and the local doctor are all suddenly without bearings at the appearance of the Professor, for whom the family has scraped and skimped, and his second wife Yelena. The Professor's being in residence has not only sent the domestic tension level up to high, but thrown it in Vanya's face that he has sacrificed his entire adult life for a man he despises. In vivid contrast to the retired and now judged useless professor, his wife Yelena embodies the something missing from all their lives and becomes the object of their fetishistic attentions.

While the overall strength of the cast is strong, there are too many big names here to not give each consideration. Denis O'Hare, who evidently was pivotal to the mounting of this production, gives a strong and eccentric performance, well worth seeing. He captures that sort of jester-like quality to Vanya without belittling the title character. He is awkward in his freedom and inept in his attempts at debauchery but still has a certain confidence in his Self. The quirkiness is almost a base level discomfort with life, and his emotional openness grounds a wonderful and engaging, generously human portrayal.

As the neighboring doctor, Astrov, Peter Sarsgaard is a bit of a benign sociopath. While initially he appears normal, he gradually shows himself to be both deeply idealistic and truly so cold that his attraction to Yelena has an uncomfortable, predatory, almost date-rape intensity to it. It is a disturbing and interesting portrayal that would be even stronger if were he to look up more and allow the audience in. There is some playing at a level that film can catch but does not carry well on stage. Despite strong efforts by Maggie Gyllenhaal, his focus on the floor during the map scene made it truly a scene about maps and fairly confusing. It is a better performance than that and hopefully will include the audience more as the run continues.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, an actress of skill, is simply not well used here and seems to lack guidance as to Yelena's place within the story. She is somewhat aimlessly affectionate with everyone and seems to be playing ennui, which is a bit contradictory and not very effective. Her Yelena seems not only completely unmoored but also curiously unaffected by most everything in life. Where this is oddly effective is that Astrov's declaration of love is all the more unsettling as one can honestly believe she is surprised and as he pursues her the assault is both physical and emotional. But then their goodbye is all the more clumsy, as what she wants is as indiscernible as if she wants.

As Sonya, Maggie Gummer has the pathos of a child taking care of all the adults—one who is crushed under that pathos. While the actor can definitely trust the smarts of this characterization more and allow more emotion to balance it out, it is strong and marvelous work. She has a sense of clown well incorporated in the intrinsically awkward behavior and yet also hides a profound strength that is only evident at the play's end.

And for once, the play's end is not an interminable meandering through a wash of "life is hard" but actually sets up how these people are affected and where they are headed, at least in the short term. There is a sense of life continuing that has been built by the largely thoughtful and probing direction of Austin Pendleton. He honors the writing by avoiding pretension with both a severe intelligence and humane humor. Overall his direction is at its strongest in where he keeps the life pulsing, and does not allow actor impulses too much reign, and that is for most of the play. There are a few moments where actors are too close to each other, excluding the audience, and there is an uneven understanding of period; but these are minor caveats that sink before the overall life and clarity of this very fine production. It has a feel of being more human than noble, more universal than "Russian," and unapologetically gives life precedence over art in production priorities.

This Uncle Vanya has its foibles and is worth every single one of them, as is Vanya himself.