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Uncle Vanya

Denis O'Hare gives a towering performance in Austin Pendleton's near-perfect production of Anton Chekhov's melancholy comedy.

Denis O'Hare and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Uncle Vanya
(© Joan Marcus)
Austin Pendleton has tackled Anton Chekhov's melancholy comedy Uncle Vanya numerous times as both director and actor. Now, in helming the Classic Stage Company's current revival -- starring Tony Award winner Denis O'Hare in the title role and real-life married couple Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard as the love-torn Yelena and Astrov -- he has brought the much-produced work to startling life.

As this production proves, there's no question that Pendleton knows the hallowed script from top to bottom and back -- translated here with an ear for contemporary expression by Carol Rocamora -- and that he understands the value of paying close attention to repeated words describing how Chekhov's characters spend their arduous days in Vanya's household.

With the sort of calculation that comes across as effortlessness, he's created an atmosphere in which boredom and restlessness are like an inebriating aperitif the characters drink from the ubiquitous samovar. These men and women -- including Vanya's disappointed niece Sonya (Mamie Gummer) and her academic father (and Yelena's much older husband) Serebryakov (George Morfogen) -- are impelled to grasp each other in nervous hugs and desperate kisses; yet they're just as quick to push one another away in sudden disgust.

Unhappy with their peripheral existence in a transitioning Russia, they don't alight anywhere for long; no sooner do they sit on a chair then they're up pacing or falling to the ground in fleeting abandon. Indeed, the only people able to remain stable for periods of time are Vanya's distant mother Maria (Delphi Harrington) family retainers Marina (Cyrilla Baer) and Telegin (Louis Zorich), and local watchman Yefim (Andrew Garman).

The players give the collective impression that they're to the Chekhov manner (and country manor) born. O'Hare's towering, sometimes cowering performance in Vanya's tense skin ranks him first among equals. Unpredictable as a summer storm, he builds his gnawing despair expertly up to the famous missed gunshot scene, although he strikes a perhaps too subdued posture during the show's final scene.

Gyllenhaal -- as beautiful in Suzy Benzinger's period costumes as the others constantly exclaim she is -- shrewdly uses a light and sometimes nasal voice to establish the vapidity that Yelena combines with uneasy compassion. Sarsgaard, who was miscast earlier this season in Ian Rickson's Broadway production of The Seagull, redeems himself Chekhov-wise with an agitatedly sympathetic take on the dedicated (if alcoholic) doctor. Gummer -- her blonde hair pulled back tightly and mouth just as tight -- allows Sonya's emotions to rise like bubbles in boiling water. The others -- most notably the bearded but open-faced Zorich and the reassuring Baer -- are true to Chekhov's letter and spirit.

Set designer Santo Loquasto has constructed a two-story edifice that has no walls but many posts. The open yet claustrophobic result allows for characters to be seen about their business when the focus is on others either talking compulsively to each other or to themselves. However, because Pendleton has asked the actors to speak often in quiet conversational tones, those posts can cause audience members to miss a crucial line or two. But that's a minor flaw in this otherwise almost-perfect production.