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.)