Simon Russell Beale and Helen McCroryin Uncle Vanya
Simon Russell Beale and Helen McCrory
in Uncle Vanya
Before Sam Mendes's Donmar Warehouse production of begins in the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the audience has time to scan Anthony Ward's set. It includes an expanse of high grass at the back half of the broad stage and, at the front, a long table on which a samovar proudly perches. A number of bentwood chairs are placed higgledy-piggledy around the table. Stage left is an upright piano that Vanya attacks in one of his agitated moments. Covering the central floor area are nine rugs, fading like Anton Chekhov's characters. The high back wall of the Harvey Theatre, with its aging paint and chipped plaster, is left to serve as another emblem of a deteriorating society.

High above these artifacts is projected the phrase "O learn to read what silent love hath writ," which indicates the emotional context in which Mendes wants his audiences to consider Chekhov's still cogent 1896 play. That quote, by the way, is also projected above BAM's imported Twelfth Night, which Mendes -- director of both mountings -- clearly wants to be seen as a companion piece to the Chekhov work. [Ed. Note: click here to read David Finkle's review of Twelfth Night.]

The mellifluous yet melancholy quote Mendes has selected as the theme for his theatrical sermon is from the Bard's 23rd sonnet, the one that begins, "As an imperfect actor on the stage / Who with his fear is put beside his part..." While this may apply to Chekhov's and Shakespeare's visions, the reference to imperfect actors couldn't be wider off the mark here: Mendes has assembled as nearly perfect a troupe as the most finicky Chekhov enthusiast could want. Moreover, he's galvanized the classy cast into a nearly magnificent realization of this frequently produced classic.

First among equals is Simon Russell Beale, who has been to this borough before as Hamlet and Iago; he now brings us a stunning Vanya Voynitsky for which he's already won awards in London. Beale has a roundish torso set on tapering legs, a combo that often makes him seem ill-suited for the roles he takes on -- until he convincingly and effortlessly becomes whatever character he's playing. As Vanya, he looks immediately right: a portly, plain man succumbing to boredom and obscurity.

As Beale speaks the first-act lines in Brian Friel's exceedingly colloquial and smart 1998 translation, he finds the laughs Chekhov put there, those that led the playwright to insist his plays are comedies. For the often quite graceful Beale, it's all in the timing -- the slow take on what's just been said in his presence, on the sly reply. He'll sit on a chair at one end of the table, chin on fist, and wait until the character he's playing has conjured up a jibe and until the entire audience has shifted attention to him; then he'll let go, sometimes bluntly, sometimes nearly sotto voce. At times, Beale's eyes are limpid as a spaniel's -- which is appropriate, since he's accused of behaving spaniel-like around his brother-in-law Alexander Serebryakov's second wife, the lovely, unresponsive Yelena (Helen McCrory).

Beale is matched by everyone circling warily around him. Emily Watson, bringing star wattage to the company as Vanya's unhappy niece, isn't the drudge many Sonyas become as they moon over Doctor Astrov (Mark Strong). In her white shirt and sensible long skirt (Mark Thompson supplied the fine costumes), she is efficient and knowing, bereft of her confidence only when Astrov strides through. Helen McCrory as the gorgeous, yearned-after Yelena is properly languorous during the many moments when her languor is the topic of Vanya's conversation, but she knows that this quality masks the character's suppressed intelligence and a matter-of-factness about her good looks.

The rest of the cast is rich with incisive characterizations. Selina Cadell's mother to Vanya and mother-in-law to Serebryakov is, as required, relentlessly cranky. David Bradley's Serebryakov is the model of self-absorbed intellectual superiority, at his most unctuous when admitting that he's a scholar and not a business man. It's a subtle villainy that he shrewdly conveys. As (respectively) a family retainer and a long-term house guest, Cherry Morris and Anthony O'Donnell provide warmth. (O'Donnell is especially touching when he reports being harassed by villagers for supposedly overstaying his welcome at the Voynitskys.)

Perhaps the most magnetic figure is Mark Strong. His Doctor Astrov, repeatedly lamenting the loss of passion, is -- with calculated irony -- deeply passionate. The well-named Strong is lean, tall, and virile. During the lengthy opening, as Mendes takes his time establishing the prevailing mood of tedium, the actor reposes on one of those bentwood chairs in his high, tight boots, the picture of idle gentility. Astrov's supposedly spent passion flares throughout Strong's performance, whether he's impulsively taking Yelena in his arms or explaining to her the maps he's conscientiously drawn up out of concern for his neck of the endangered woods.

Perhaps Strong is so strong in this Uncle Vanya because he completely represents Chekhov's primary theme. Or, let's say, he represents the theme that Mendes has chosen to stress, with further help from Hugh Vanstone's burnished lighting and Paul Arditti's muted sound design. Mendes is determined to get across the message that there are sorry consequences when circumstances force passions to deteriorate into frustrations. Both Vanya -- who declares during an aggrieved moment that he's no "nonentity" -- and Astrov are passionate men robbed of opportunities to express their feelings openly. Unable to rectify their situations, they devolve into tragic frustration, and Sam Mendes has created their imprisoning world with woeful brilliance.