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Uncle Vanya

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 plunge ahead.

Chris Mixon, Brad Heberlee, Bradford Cover                   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 online
Running time: 2 hours with intermission.