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Uncle Vanya

Steve Carell and Alison Pill (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)


Uncle Vanya

By Deirdre Donovan

The new Broadway revival of Uncle Vanya, now playing at Lincoln Center, might not make any startling new discoveries but it clearly tries to measure up to Chekhov's scale of thoughts and emotions. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, and in a new translation by Heidi Schreck, it also has the superb Steve Carell leading the cast in the eponymous role.

Chekhov wrote Vanya when he was 37, and it was published in 1897. While it explores many themes—love, death, loneliness—it's very much a play about middle-age, and folks reflecting on their disappointments, lost opportunities, and advancing age.

Here's the story in a nutshell: Sonia (Alison Pill) and her Uncle Vanya (Steve Carell) have devoted their lives to managing the family farm, but when her famous gout-ridden father (Alfred Molina) and his young, beautiful wife (Anika Noni Rose) move in after his retirement, chaos ensues. Adulterous passions arise, unrequited love springs up, resentments grow, and the family inevitably must grapple with the ghosts of unlived lives.

Carell refreshingly plays Vanya not just as a dyspeptic malcontent but as a man who acutely realizes the absurdity of his own existence. Or as his Vanya says early on:

"I was a shining light who shone on nothing and nobody! A shining light?! Are you making fun of me? Yes, Mom, blinding myself with. . .fake intellectualism so I wouldn't have to look at life for what it really is! But now, if you only knew. . . I can't even sleep anymore. I'm so mad at myself for pissing away all that time when I was young! I could have had everything I'm too old to have now!"

Carell ("The Office," "The Morning Show," "The Patient") who was recognized as "America's Funniest Man" by Life magazine in 2010, is able to infuse subtle humor into Vanya's speeches and actions. His actorly choices, in fact, chime with Chekhov's insistence during his lifetime that his plays are comedies.

William Jackson Harper (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

Another sterling performance is turned in by William Jackson Harper (All the Way) in the role of Astrov. Harper manages to embody not only the overworked country doctor but the nature-conservationist, philosopher, and visionary as well. Alfred Molina's (Fiddler on the Roof, Red) Alexander projects the requisite narcissism of the professor. Anika Noni Rose (Caroline or Change) inhabits the much-desired Elena with the air of a woman who knows her sexual attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Alison Pill (Three Tall Women) nails her part as Sonia, the truly virtuous young woman whose unrequited love for Astrov engenders not only heartache but awkward moments for Astrov as well. Jonathan Hadary (Golden Boy, Awake and Sing!), as Waffles, is spot-on in his portrayal of the old, impoverished landowner who works on the family's estate. Mia Katigbak (The Headlands) convincingly plays the kind and elderly nanny Marina. Jayne Houdyshell (The Humans, King Lear), as the studious Maria and mother of Vanya, waves the flag for women's rights, even though the reality didn't exist in 1897, the aforementioned date of the play's publication.

The cast of Uncle Vanya (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)


Although this sterling cast should ensure that this Vanya would take off splendidly, this production doesn't altogether levitate. What works against it is the immense dimensions of the Vivian Beaumont stage, coupled with Mimi Lien's spacious set. Lien, who has cut the samovars and any other markers of the 19th century, clearly makes this a modern Vanya.

Unfortunately, the claustrophobic atmosphere that is so vital to any production of Vanya is swallowed up by the large physical dimensions of the set. To be fair, Lien has created some handsome outdoor spaces, allowing the audience to see the comings and goings of characters with the near realism of film. But, that said, the heart of the drama takes place in its interior spaces, with the intimate conversations of various characters. Too bad that intimacy isn't somehow mirrored on stage.

Heidi Schreck, best-known as the author of What the Constitution Means to Me, has written a new English translation for this revival of Vanya. It definitely makes Chekhov's masterpiece accessible, even though some of the poetry of earlier versions is sacrificed.

Before tackling Vanya, Neugebauer has directed a number of critically-acclaimed productions, including Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate (still presently running on Broadway), to mention a few. Although with Vanya, she might not altogether succeed in mounting a satisfying production, she certainly gets an A+ for assembling a cast led by Carell and supported by so many other luminaries. Indeed, to witness Carell making his Broadway debut is something special, and he delivers big time.

Neugebauer's Vanya marks the first Broadway staging of Chekhov's classic in more than twenty years. In spite of its flaws, there's much to savor in this new production.

Uncle Vanya

At Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65 Street, Midtown.

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Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes with intermission