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Theatre in Review: Uncle Vanya (Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont)

William Jackson Harper. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

The title character of Anton Chekhov's play is permanently at sixes and sevens but, in the new production at the Beaumont, his distress is surprisingly undistressing. Vanya, of course, is a virtuoso complainer, and he has plenty to rail about, having wasted his life managing the country estate that nominally belongs to his beloved niece Sonia but which long ago was converted into an income stream for his brother-in-law Alexander, a world-class windbag whose career as a public intellectual is winding down with little distinction. No good deed goes unpunished, it seems: Vanya's act of self-sacrifice has left him loveless, friendless, and bereft of hope. But, for the first time in decades of seeing Uncle Vanya, I found myself wondering, Must he whine so much?

In the hands of Steve Carell, a fine film and television actor making his Broadway debut, the answer, apparently, is yes. With a voice like a dental drill, he spreads his dissatisfaction across the stage although, admittedly, in Heidi Schreck's new version, his grievances often have a fresh bite. Dismissing Alexander as "a rotting fish with a PhD," he adds, "We can't all be perpetual writing machines." Fed up with his bluestocking mother, Maria, he says, "She's got one foot in the grave, but she still believes a better world's a'comin'." (That "a'comin" is a particularly sharp jab.) To be fair, he doesn't spare himself; summing up his wasted potential, he admits, "I was a shining light who shone on nothing and nobody!" No wonder he responds to a banal comment about the weather, with: "Nice weather for hanging yourself."

But the actor, famed for his comedic performances, takes two of Chekhov's four acts to find the pathos behind his character's kvetching; before that, he comes off as shrill and sour, the kind of injustice collector you edge away from at family gatherings. (Give him a laugh line and all is well: Asked if a certain female is faithful to her husband, he snaps, "Tragically," an irresistibly acid summation.) Without a convincingly amusing/pathetic Vanya at its center -- like, say, Jay O. Sanders at the Hunter Theatre Project in 2018 -- Chekhov's meticulously woven tangle of frustration and wayward desire threatens to implode, sending the characters spinning off into their private universes.

Then again, everyone onstage seems a little lost, thanks to Lila Neugebauer's production, which is stuck in a kind of time warp. She and Schreck have chosen to update Vanya but -- unlike the works of Aaron Posner, whose Life Sucks fully reimagines Uncle Vanya in a contemporary context -- they have built a halfway house stranded between the nineteenth century and today. Thus, Astrov, the local doctor, quaintly spends all his time making house calls. Alexander's celebrity as a retired academic and famous arts commentator is an echo of another era. Seen through the lens of today, the devotion and indolence of his young wife, Elena, is baffling: Does she have a degree? Did she have a career? How to explain the strange paralysis that keeps her married to an elderly, impecunious near-invalid?

And exactly where is this Vanya unfolding? Vladimir Putin's Russia? (In that case, freethinkers like Alexander and Maria would probably be Siberia-bound.) At times, the atmosphere suggests Upstate New York or perhaps the Berkshires, but stripping out references to Moscow and samovars doesn't distance the action from its roots in the manners and morals of another era and place. Even the time frame is vaguely articulated: The living room features a record turntable playing midcentury jazz classics and there isn't a hint of digital technology or even a TV set. The characters inhabit a bubble that is neither here nor there, neither now nor then.

In part because of Carell's uncertain performance, the focus shifts to Astrov, who, blithely unaware of Sonia's love for him, is obsessed with Elena. This isn't entirely bad: William Jackson Harper's genial exterior barely masks his character's sorrow over the patients he can't save and the forest devastation he can't stop. A decent man drowning in despair and vodka, Astrov puts his trust in future generations. "I think the best we can hope for is that, as we lay dying, we get to see some incredible visions," he says, girding himself for another soul-deadening day. Alison Pill is touching as Sonia, a love-starved drudge who treats her shattered dreams with endless rounds of labor. (In a way, she and Astrov would be perfect, a marriage of true workaholics.) Anika Noni Rose, looking sensational, captures Elena's idle, empty nature, although Kaye Voyce costumes have her looking ready for a cocktail party at any hour.

Filling out the cast is a delightful collection of familiar faces: As Waffles, a permanent houseguest, who recalls the farcical dissolution of his marriage exactly one day after the ceremony, Jonathan Hadary exquisitely balances humor and heartbreak. Jayne Houdyshell is credulity itself as Maria, Alexander's most ardent devotee. As Marina, the chatterbox servant, Mia Katigbak adds plenty of tart humor; the withering look she gives Astrov when he claims he doesn't drink every day is one of the evening's most treasurable moments. The luxuriously cast Alfred Molina may seem a tad robust for Alexander, who is subject to sleepless nights of aches and pains, but he captures the character's bitter regrets.

The Beaumont probably isn't ideal for a play as intimate as Uncle Vanya, but scenic designer Mimi Lien compounds the problem in the first half, making use of its full depth; the actors often look stranded, especially when forced far upstage by the direction. Her second-act interior is much better if only because it forces the action closer to the audience. (As you may know, Broadway is seeing record rainfall this season; Lien gets in the groove by adding an onstage downpour.) The lighting, by Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper, is often distractingly dim; part of the first half unfolds at night, but a little extra moonlight would help us see the actors' faces. The sound design by Mikhail Fiksel and Beth Lake helps keep the action intelligible; they also supply a full range of effects including, birdsong, thunder, and car horns. Aside from Rose's costumes, Voyce's work is solid; Astrov's surgical scrubs are a nice touch.

The production's second half improves markedly when Chekhov's peerless dramaturgy kicks into high gear with Astrov's fruitless attempts at interesting Elena in his deforestation concerns, Elena's ham-handed attempt at brokering a romance between Astrov and Sonia, and Alexander's brazen scheme to enrich himself by selling the estate, a plan that would leave his loved ones dispossessed and futureless. Even Carell acquits himself well, denouncing Alexander in a fury cut with creeping terror; at last, we see how truly caged Vanya is, loathing his existence yet clinging to it. It's a powerful jolt in a play that, in any version, poignantly details the inevitable erosions of time. It's too bad that this production takes so long to arrive at a dramatic boil. --David Barbour

(8 May 2024)

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