Chekhov’s play, now at The Pearl Theater for a few more weeks, offers so many unhappy characters, all rusticating in the country (rural Russia, circa 1890) it’s difficult to follow all their through lines as they interact with each other. The estate on which they are presently living is managed by Ivan Petrovich, (Uncle Vanya). He is Uncle to Sonya, the proper owner of the estate. She in turn is Professor Alexander Serebriakov’s daughter by his first wife, who is now dead.
The professor’s new wife is a younger woman, Yelena, and Vanya has fallen in love with her. The good doctor Mikhail Lvovich Astrov, who lives nearby, is a constant visitor, and he too has an eye for Yelena. Add to the mix an impoverished neighbor, Ilya Ilyich Telegin, who is commonly known as “Waffles” because he has blotches on the skin of his face. The family nurse is Marina, and she’s been serving at the farm over forty years. Sonya is suffering from an unrequited love for Doctor Astrov, so there is a good deal of material here for romantic comedy. But Vanya is suffering from mid life crisis, Yelena cannot free herself from the upbringing which will not permit her to be unfaithful to her husband, (the Professor, whom she has never loved), so she and Astrov, for whom she feels attraction, will not ultimately get together.
So here we have a not so merry band of misfits and malcontents, all of whom are bored out of their minds, frustrated and seemingly unaware that the Russian Empire is about to slipslide into the mud.
There is something ominously present in the play, as though Chekhov were a psychic, for there are constant references to polluted rivers, denuded forests, frightening climate change, population growth and increasing poverty, all of which seem to come from today’s headlines. Astrov is convinced disaster lives around the corner. The only one who seems to have adjusted is ancient Marina, the house servant. She has her religion for comfort, and though she’s aware that things aren’t what they used to be, she’s convinced that tomorrow will be a better day.
One of Chekhov’s enduring master works, Uncle Vanya offers complex and contradictory characters which have always allowed great actors to give fascinating performances. The Brits have a field day trotting them out with great frequency, and luminaries like Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Nicol Williamson and dozens of others, including such prominent Americans as George C. Scott and Helen Hayes, have brought their own particular magic through them to the stages of New York and London. Much depends on the translations and adaptations from the original Russian, and here is where The Pearl Theatre Company has stumbled with this outing.
Under the guidance of new artistic director Hal Brooks, who has directed this production, Paul Schmidt has supplied the translation. I note it says “translation”, not “adaptation” in the program notes but that’s not accurate, for the language Mr. Schmidt uses is the vernacular that gives it a contemporary American air. The costumes and attitudes reflect the 19th century, the language does not.
As director, Mr. Brooks has encouraged his cast to reveal frustration, anger, rage, despair, nostalgia openly and without restraint. So that when Sonya, as played by Michelle Beck, cries “I am so happy!”, she virtually rolls about in sheer delight, and emits a sound that reminds one of the “woo woos” that have replaced “bravo!” in the throats of the 21st century young. When Vanya goes on and on about his miserable life, when he cries “I am so unhappy!”, as played by Chris Mixon at full bellow, he brings to mind a moose in heat. Dominic Duskern is an experienced character actor, has been withThe Pearl since 2000, but his lack of height clothed in a long topcoat that makes him appear smaller, does not seem right for the Professor who gives Vanya a tongue lashing. A good actor who is, in my opinion, miscast.
Bradford Cover’s “Astrov” is appealing and believable, and he continues his long association with The Pearl with an excellent performance. His Doctor would have been happier in the city where his life style would have been more attractive and more suited to his needs. Brad Heberlee does a nice job with the sad “Waffles”. The same certainly is true of Robin Leslie Brown who is a founding resident actor at The Pearl, and she brings her original voice to the smaller role of Marina with subtlety, nuance and humor. It’s always a joy to note a good actor making something rich and contributive of a supporting role, and Ms. Brown makes every moment count, even those in which she is merely background. She is always in the scene, always remains a part of it even when the playwright has left her on her own.
Jason Simms’ set easily suggests a world of ease and grace, and the costumes of Barbara Bell conjure up images of that world as well.
It’s an uneven start for Mr. Brooks, and I’m confident he’ll find his footing as he settles in. In May he will direct Don Juan which is rarely done, and the season will include other directors’ versions of Major Barbara and The Winter’s Tale in November and February. We wish him well, for the Pearl, in its newly designed home at the old Signature Theatre at 555 West 42nd Street has served theatre lovers well since 1984 by giving us a look at the past, which seems always to shed light on some aspect of the present.
The Pearl is onstage through October 12, 2014 at The Pearl Theater, 555 West 42nd Street, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.