Roger Rees, Derek Jacobi, and Laura Linney
Roger Rees, Derek Jacobi, and Laura Linney
In his major plays, Anton Chekhov assiduously demonstrates how much "anguish" there is in "languish." His world-weary characters--insisting almost boastfully that they're bored, tormented, wretched--flaunt their pain even when laughing through their tears. And there is plenty of that, because the breast-beating histrionics can be so excessive they often unintentionally amuse even the breast-beaters themselves. That, of course, is part of the reason Chekhov maintained he was writing comedies.

He was: tragi-comedies. It's almost as if he can be heard chuckling to himself in the wings while proclaiming, "This is no joke." Take Uncle Vanya, wherein every one of the focal characters believes that life has passed him or her by, that hope is fruitless, and that the most anyone can expect from a bone-tiring existence is getting through the day. Vanya, for instance, has chosen to administer the family estate with plodding diligence for 25 years, although the property isn't his. It's been inherited by his niece, Sonya, the daughter of his deceased sister, although Sonya's father, Serebryakov, thinks he's master of the house.

But just as Vanya's innards are pecked at by his brother-in-law's grandiose behavior, Serebryakov--a self-important academic--is gnawed by gout. Or is it rheumatism? Doctor Astrov, who regularly drops in to treat the uncooperative professor, passes his idle hours by figuring out how to preserve the vanishing forests. He's been distracted from his avocation, however, by Serebryakov's wife, Yelena, a young and surpassingly beautiful woman. Yelena, suffering the consequences of having indentured herself to an older man, can't respond to Astrov's attentions--or to those of the love-struck Vanya. Yet she's not so dim that she doesn't see how much the unexciting Sonya pines for Astrov and how little of that longing Astrov notices, much less plans to requite.

It could be said that the affliction common to these specimens of landed gentry is their having too much time to think about themselves. "I might shine but I give no light," Vanya remarks in Mike Poulton's translation, now on view at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Astrov uses virtually the same words when expounding on his predicament as a lonely man entering middle age. The others bat similar adjectives and nouns--"waste" is a frequent one--at one another. Indeed, the only characters excused from debilitating anxiety are the servants and laborers who either don't have the luxury of indulging themselves or, like the aged Marina, have learned to keep philosophically quiet about their plight.

The world of Uncle Vanya is one in which every ineffectual action is hilarious or wrenching--often both simultaneously. Perhaps the most famous episode in Chekhov's works is Vanya's attempt to shoot Serebryakov. Enraged by the self-absorbed essayist's suggestion that the estate be sold to pay debts, Vanya grabs a pistol and chases Serebryakov through a good part of the 26-room mansion, shooting twice and missing both times. This humiliating, thigh-slapping sequence may be the most indelible metaphor for futility in all of dramatic literature.

Which leads to the matter at hand: Michael Mayer's up-and-down production of Uncle Vanya for the Roundabout Theatre Company. Mayer knows that Chekhov is mocking, deploring, pitying, and commemorating squandered lives. He knows--who doesn't?--that Chekhov is presciently sensitive to the complicated emotions with which a dying social class is facing its terminal illness. (The Chekhov oeuvre may be all anyone needs as a prerequisite to grasping the basic causes of--indeed, the historical imperatives for--the Russian revolution.)


Laura Linney and Brian Murray
Laura Linney and Brian Murray
Mayer's Vanya is presented on a set that designer Tony Walton has populated with elegant but vulnerable-looking birches surrounding an elegant but deteriorating house of odd, oppressive chambers. The director is most successful in the first of Chekhov's four acts. (As is common with Chekhov nowadays, the play is performed with only one intermission.) He gets it right when Marina explains that the professor's arrival with Yelena has thrown the household schedule out-of-whack, when Vanya and Astrov reveal the lacerating boredom that dogs their camaraderie, when Serebryakov and Yelena pass along the terrace without making much of a stir. In one of the touches that distinguish Mayer's direction, Yelena carries a parasol that hides her face so Vanya has to peek under it before uttering one of his saucy, searing jibes.

The director's grip begins to loosen as the play progresses, however. When Vanya goes on his rampage at the end of Chekhov's third act, Mayer can't find the correct way to balance the tragic and comic elements. Vanya's barreling after the flummoxed professor is cause for hysteria, but Mayer has been unable to stop the chaos from being just plain chaotic. The effect is deadening.

Mayer makes another mistake that seriously undermines Chekhov's purposes. At moments during the play, some of the characters--Vanya, Astrov, Yelena--are on stage alone, talking to themselves. Evidently, Mayer is uncomfortable with this convention, for he treats the confessional speeches as asides to the audience. Chekhov, of course, never intended any such thing. He wanted observers to feel as if they were peering through the walls to observe the constricted lives eroding inside. (On Walton's set, the walls are made of birch beams.) The playwright couldn't have meant for his characters to peer conspiratorially out.

The cast Mayer has assembled is also hit-and-miss. In any review of Uncle Vanya, it's standard to start by discussing the actor in the title role--on this occasion, Derek Jacobi. For the moment, however, he'll be by-passed. Roger Rees as Astrov is the drama's heartbeat. His presence on stage--stretching, yawning, pacing-- as the audience enters suggests that a play called Doctor Astrov is about to commence. Sporting a thick mustache and looking dapper in a fatigued way, Rees fills every moment with charming resignation, resigned charm. The speech in which he attempts to explain conservation to the uninterested Yelena is only one of his magnetic turns; what he does with a prop as negligible as a pencil is masterful.

Next to Rees, Jacobi seems more wan that he's supposed to. It should be needless to say that Jacobi has flawless technique. He does nothing that fails to pinpoint Vanya's frustration at having so thoroughly sacrificed his opportunities with no thanks forthcoming. When he tells Yelena that "it's all too much for you to move," he dithers like her with amusingly exaggerated gestures. When he chases Serebryakov, his normally ruddy face is even ruddier. When he sits down at play's melancholy end to pay the overdue estate bills for linseed oil, he's acceptance itself. And yet, craft only takes Jacobi so far. Something at Vanya's core is missing--the throbbing humanity profoundly present in Rees' performance.

Of the others, Brian Murray makes Serebryakov's narcissism loathsome but real; in his final minutes, he even manages to show some of the dignity Yelena had at one time seen in him. Amy Ryan finds the pathos and impatience in Sonya, especially when cutting short Yelena's fumbled compliments. Sonya's declaration that plain women don't want to be praised for hair or eyes or bone structure rings with unpleasant truth. Anne Pitoniak is properly dignified and wise as Marina, and Rita Gam is properly dignified and foolish as Vanya's forever-reading mother, Maria Vasilyeva. David Patrick Kelly, whose ability to play soothing guitar serves him as it has in previous roles, cowers and kowtows well as a hanger-on.

Laura Linney is Yelena, and she doesn't entirely pass muster. She certainly meets the physical requirement; she moves with dignified flair in Walton's delicate costumes. But the performance occasionally goes flat. In a production where the women speak with American accents while--somewhat disconcertingly--the men speak with English accents, Linney intones her lines prosaically. Perhaps she's listened too carefully to Astrov's comment that Yelena has a vacancy sign hung on her brain. Yelena isn't supposed to be dim; after all, she sees some things more clearly than even the critical, enthralled Astrov does. She's an intelligent woman who's retired her intelligence because it gets her nowhere. Somebody--Mayer would be the likely choice--might remind Linney of this.

Not, then, an Uncle Vanya for the ages, but also not a bad one to have around for the time being, certainly for as long as Roger Rees continues demonstrating exactly how Astrov can be performed for utmost heartbreak.