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Theatre in Review: Uncle Vanya (Hunter Theater Project)

Jesse Pennington, Jay O. Sanders. Photo: Joan Marcus

The title character of Uncle Vanya is one of drama's great complainers -- for good reason; he has plenty to stew over, and in Richard Nelson's new production, he is a true evangelist of the gospel of dissatisfaction. Vanya's life has been spent -- wasted, really -- managing, with his niece Sonya, the family estate. He, Sonya, and their associated relatives and servants adhere to a tedious routine of work, broken only by visits from Astrov, the drunken, deeply self-involved local doctor, who does nothing to relieve the general air of melancholy. Vanya's youth is long since spent, and he has nothing to look forward to but more of the same; without quite knowing it, he is arriving at the breaking point.

Fed up with toiling to support his brother-in-law, Serebryakov, an elderly intellectual of great industry and no particular distinction, Vanya grouses, "The professor, as usual, sits in his study and writes from morning till late at night." Pausing for just a second, he adds, in mock sympathy, "The poor paper!" Later, he adds that, for thirty-five years, Serebryakov has "been lecturing and writing about what intelligent people have long known and stupid people aren't interested in: meaning that for thirty-five years he's been pouring empty into void." And just in case we haven't yet taken his point, he says that his loathed relative-by-marriage -- his wife, Vanya's beloved sister, is long dead -- is "retired, and the sum total of his life can now be seen: Not one page of his work will remain after him, he's totally unknown, he's nobody! A soap bubble!"

The actor Jay O. Sanders delivers this bill of indictments quietly, deliberately, and with lethal emphasis, quietly pouring scorn upon scorn while remaining seemingly unable to do anything about the trap in which he finds himself. Dismissing his mother's comment that he was once "a shining light," he bitterly notes, "I was a shining light who never shone on anybody." Confronting Elena, Serebryakov's second, much younger, wife, for whom he hopelessly pines, he says, "My love is perishing for nothing, like a ray of sunlight fallen into a pit, and I myself am perishing."

Even in the most fraught of these moments, Sanders' delivery is sweetly reasonable, as if he were describing the weather or points of interest on the surrounding landscape. The character's paralysis is near-total: His only satisfaction comes from enumerating the wicked ways of the world. Yet, underneath lurks a clarifying anger; each grievance is a little piece of ordnance being laid out in preparation for the explosion to come. Stumbling upon Elena locked in an embrace with Astrov, his equally futile rival in romance, Vanya flings a bouquet of flowers to the floor, giving the gesture a sudden, savage emphasis that warns of trouble to come. And, when Serebryakov announces his reckless and entirely self-serving plan to sell the family estate -- which belongs not to him but his hapless daughter, Sonya -- something inside Vanya breaks and the fury that ensues is terrible to behold: He denounces Serebryakov as a windbog and a poseur, following up with wild claims ("If I'd had a normal life, I could have become a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky!"), only to retreat -- shaken more than anyone else by his outburst -- into an all-devouring shame. The precision with which Sanders charts Vanya's progression from default sarcasm to pathetic longing to unchecked rage, ending in self-loathing, is remarkable. This may be the actor's finest work to date.

In this he is aided by a new and sparkling version of Chekov's text, by Nelson and the eminent translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Whether it is Elena's lament that "In music, in my husband's house, in all my romances -- in short, everywhere -- I've been a minor character"; Sonya's admission that "it's so terrible I'm not beautiful"; or Astrov's characterization of Elena as a "predator" and a "beautiful furry weasel" who "needs victims," the words are economical, pertinent, aimed directly at the dark heart of the emotional tangle in which these unhappy folk dwell. And there's something eerily of our moment in the warnings, from Astrov, who is obsessed with ecology of the area around the estate: "There are fewer and fewer forests, rivers are drying up, wildlife is disappearing, the climate is ruined, and with every day the earth becomes poorer and uglier." In Uncle Vanya, everything -- time, energy, even nature itself -- is running out.

The translation, which feels fresh without being distractingly contemporary, fits neatly with Nelson's staging, which is of a piece with his handling of the Apple Family and Gabriel Family plays at the Public Theater. As with them, the set design (by Jason Ardizzone-West) consists of little more than a table and some chairs, with a tiny forest of mics hanging overhead, providing just enough sweetening by sound designer Will Pickens to make every word intelligible, despite the low-key, almost cinematic, acting style. (The characters' monologues are spoken directly to the audience, taking us into their confidence.) Jennifer Tipton's restrained lighting and the cabinet of old clothes and faded finery supplied by Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss complete the effect. Only the absolute necessities of production design are employed; the emphasis is on the characters and their soul-crushing dilemmas.

Nelson has assembled a number of fine companions for Sanders' Vanya: Yvonne Woods' Sonya is a brisk and efficient young woman, with a repertory of sympathetic facial expressions at the ready when forced into conversations that are often too intimate for comfort; at the same time, we are aware of her desperate longing for Astrov, her utter lack of faith in herself as a woman, and her heartbreaking determination to keep moving, no matter what. Celeste Arias' Elena is a beautiful, empty young thing, smart enough to know her deficiencies but lacking the will and intelligence to do anything about them; her disastrous meddling in Sonya's love life seems especially regrettable this time around. Jon DeVries is unctuousness itself as Serebryakov, who continues to believe in his eminence long after anyone has stopped caring. (The way he kicks off the play's most acrimonious discussion with a lame joke about Gogol's The Inspector General tells you everything you need to know about his self-regard and social awkwardness.) Also fine in smaller roles are Alice Cannon as Marya, Vanya's mother and Serebryakov's only remaining acolyte, and Kate Kearney-Patch as Marina, the former nanny who sees far more of the family's agonies than she is willing to admit.

Posed against all this fine work is the mysteriously imagined Astrov of Jesse Pennington. In a production aiming for an unadorned truth, he is headed in the other direction, offering a painstakingly stylized approach that feels jarringly out of place. Standing at a strangely canted angle -- he always seems about to fall over -- his arms pulled in close and hands curled into near-fists, his face obscured by a winter beard, he seems poised in a defensive crouch, speaking in a monotone and refusing to make eye contact. It's not just that he seems to belong in a different play -- he apparently comes from another planet. Whether intended as a portrait of a man suffering from clinical depression, or, perhaps, a form of Asperger's, it renders him remote, disengaged, too easily dismissed. It's especially damaging when Astrov trenchantly diagnoses the enervating effect Elena and Serebryakov have had on Vanya and the others; his mannerisms rob the speech of some of its power.

Still, the play's final scenes -- in which this unhappy community is dissolved, all hopes of romantic fulfillment are dismissed, and the daily grind begins again -- are still affecting. And, whatever one thinks of Pennington's performance, Nelson stages a final bit of business, an intense bearhug between Vanya and Astrov (who is heading into exile from the estate) that makes us see theirs as perhaps the only really sustaining relationship in the play -- and now it, too, must end. Here, as elsewhere, Sanders carries the day; his Vanya is the preeminent member of this house of fools and broken hearts. -- David Barbour

(17 September 2018)

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