Thursday, February 12, 2009

Neither Comic nor Tragic

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Starring Denis O'Hare, Peter Sarsgaard, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mamie Gummer, George Morfogen

January 17--March 8, 2009
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street

O'Hare and Gyllenhaal
in Uncle Vanya
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, as unclassifiable as his other mature masterpieces The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Three Sisters, is neither comedy nor tragedy as it moves freely between from laughter to tears.

The middle-aged title character, a forgotten mediocrity, has little to show for 47 years of life except the devotion of his plain niece Sofya, daughter of elderly Professor Serebryakov, married to 27-year-old beauty Yelena. Vanya adores the lively Yelena, but she merely enjoys his friendship; the dashing country doctor, Astrov, however, might be able to pry her away from her marriage.

As written, Chekhov’s plot sounds like soap opera, but there’s such variety and vitality in his exquisitely-written characters that melodrama is kept permanently at bay. Thanks to its enormous subtlety, Vanya rarely makes it to the stage convincingly, and Austin Pendleton’s lackluster staging misses another opportunity.

Faced with Chekhov’s tightrope walk between the tragic and the comic; Pendleton decided to go in both directions, starting out with broad laughs too lighthearted for the matter at hand, as if this was a stage remake as Woody Allen’s innocuous A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. And it ends with tearful misery, rather like Woody’s unfortunate, morbid Interiors.

Denis O’Hare’s Vanya is as frisky as a cat in heat, jarringly anachronistic in this context: when he maniacally chases Yelena around, trying to pull up her skirt--teasingly, to be sure--this is no Uncle Vanya but rather a classroom cut-up who forgot to take his meds.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mamie Gummer’s Sofya. Instead of being a young woman who accepts her plainness and earnest, caring heart (her crying moments are mixed with smiles and laughter), Gummer turns on the waterworks so frequently that her devastatingly moving final lines to Vanya are damagingly undercut.

Pendleton doesn’t draw cohesive portrayals from the rest of his cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal looks and sounds absolutely right as Yelena, yet only occasionally touches our hearts. Peter Sarsgaard simply skirts the surface of Astrov, never showing why he’s irresistible to women. And George Morfogen badly overacts as the professor, whether confined to a wheelchair in act one or absurdly running around the estate in after intermission.

Santo Loquasto’s two-story set looks impressive, yet when pressed into service for the play, it’s at odds with Classic Stage Company’s small space: too much action plays out on the upper level or among the pillars lined up onstage, all of which block the actors from portions of the audience.

This rarely touching Uncle Vanya ultimately fails at showing Chekhov’s characters trudging on with life despite their despair: the playwright illuminated their predicament; Pendleton and company do not.

originally posted on

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