Rachel Botchan, Brad Heberlee
by Deirdre Donovan
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a penetrating study of unfulfilled human
lives. To open their 31st season, the Pearl Theatre stages the 1899
classic, helmed by its new Artistic Director Hal Brooks.
The old warhorse gains contemporary color through Paul Schmidt’s
au courant translation and the ensemble’s comic instincts. Unfortunately,
a couple of performers are miscast in principal parts, keeping this production
from altogether levitating.
Naturally, the challenge to staging Vanya is to give it an
authentic pulse. Sound easy? Hardly. And it’s even tougher to
pull off when you consider that so many greats have approached its principal
roles with trepidation. So what’s any decent actor, and a supporting ensemble,
to do when trying to make the melancholy play live again? The only
answer, of course, is not to be intimidated by past interpretations--and boldly
Chris Mixon, Brad Heberlee,
Photo credit: Al Foote III
Taking the plunge here into the principal parts are the Pearl’s
resident company members plus a few guest performers. Fortunately, the
actor who really nails his part is Pearl veteran Chris Mixon in the leading
role. Mixon displays the mix of tenderness and burning frustration that
lies beneath Vanya’s skin. He lets the audience glimpse his smothered
soul, a talented man who has been continually suppressed throughout his youth
and now at middle-age finds himself “a mediocrity.” The other two actors
who turn in solid performances here are Pearl regulars as well: Bradford
Cover as Astrov, and Dan Cuskern as the aging Professor. While Cover
lacks the passion and idealism of other Astrovs I’ve seen in recent years, he
infuses more comic verve than most—and a much livelier dance-step when his
Astrov has been downing shots of vodka.. Cuskern is rightly pompous and
insensitive as the celebrated scholar. Where the casting goes awry,
though, is on the distaff side. Long-time Pearl actress Rachel Botchan,
as Yelena, fails to project the necessary ennui, and the attractive Michelle
Beck is not in synch with the plain-jane look or personality of Sonya. A
shout out to Pearl’s newbie resident actor Brad Heberlee as the
self-sacrificing workaholic Waffles. Waffles is one of the more likeable
characters in Chekhov’s world, and Heberlee comes through with soulfulness.
Admittedly, I had watched an early preview performance of this
Vanya and, curious to how it might ripen, decided to return for a second
viewing a week later. And it had considerately smoothed out! The
ensemble had more confidence as they tread the boards. No doubt the
familiarity with the Chekhovian idiom helped.
The creative team work meticulously together here. Set
designer Jason Simms has created a handsome set with a large old-fashioned
dining table with large impressionistic paintings hung on the back wall for
both Act 1 and 2, adding a romantic aura to the proceedings. Seth
Reiser’s lighting is understated, and Barbara A. Bell’s period costumes sweep
one back to the 19th century in Russia. And I would be remiss
not to mention M. Florian Staab’s sound design. Staab punctuates scenes
with everything from folk music to thunderclaps that will, in turn, charm or
bowl you over.
Although Vanya has been done with more Russian flavor, novelty,
and fun (think of Broadway’s Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike), Brooks
traditional presentation is a sturdy one. The thorny complexities of
Chekhov’s characters arrive intact. In short, it delivers enough of the
theatrical goods to give any theatregoer an eyeful of life in the Russian
boondocks and an earful of Chekhov’s music.
Through October 12th.
At the Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd. Street, Manhattan
For tickets and more information, phone 212-563-9261 or visit
Running time: 2 hours with intermission.