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.