The late great actor and teacher, Stella Adler, told her students more than once, "You can't be boring. Life is boring. The weather is boring. Actors must not be boring." Unfortunately, the actors in the new production of "Uncle Vanya," with one riveting exception, obviously never heeded Stella's directive.
This has been a banner year for Chekhov enthusiasts, with recent stagings of "The Cherry Orchard," "The Three Sisters," and "The Seagull," this last on Broadway and at Classic Stage, which now is the place to see "Vanya."
With a powerhouse cast of Denis O'Hare as Vanya, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Yalena, her real-life lover, Peter Sarsgaard as Astrov, and Mamie Gummer as Sofya, this production of the Russian Shakespeare's play should have been magnificent, but it's very hard to grab an audience's interest when the main characters keep proclaiming they're bored, yet do nothing to make themselves interesting.
Vanya's family is an extended one, all living under the same roof, yet as distant from one another as Moscow and Siberia. Vanya himself is an embittered man, lamenting, "I've wasted my life. I lie awake at night and rage." He also rages a lot during the day, and much of this has to do with Yalena, "my youth, my happiness, my life."
Yalena is married to Aleksandr, an elderly professor twice her age who writes about art and lives on the estate because he can't afford a flat in town. A widower, formerly married to Vanya's sister, he buries himself in his work, knowing that Yalena finds him repulsive.
Like a walking Odalisque, Yalena slouches across the floor, leaning backwards, her arms braced on a table, then half-reclining on a bench, then leaning back against a pillar, or a newel post, and proclaiming over and over, "I'm bored." And so are we. One wants to shout out, "get a job."
But Yalena has a love -- Dr. Astrov, the Russian Al Gore who loves his forests more than the woman who ignites his hunger. This family friend who spends much of his time on Vanya's estate is blind, however, to real love, unaware that Yalena, who never says anything of interest, would eventually bore him.
The one whose love is true and enduring is Sofya's, Vanya's young sister, who has ached with love for this ahead-of-his-time conservationist and would do anything to be his wife. But she is too plain for him. It breaks your heart when she cries, "how awful it is that I'm not beautiful."
Such is life on this Russian estate, and as in all of Chekhov's plays, it is complex, filled with angst, longings, dissatisfaction, and Russian gloom. Unfortunately, this production is also very boring for the first two hours, and doesn't come alive until Aleksandr suggests that the estate be sold. But by then, several audience members were snoring.
The only actor who really grabs your attention and forces you to restrain yourself from comforting her is Mamie Gummer. An actor who has clearly inherited her mother's talent, this daughter of Meryl Streep has mastered the ability to become her character and sustain it through the full length of the show. She evoked the loudest applause, and it's easy to predict that Gummer is a future star.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"the impression here is less of people running after elusive dreams than of actors running after elusive roles."
New York Times
"it lacks tension, humor and crisp characterizations while slogging along on a hulking set ... for 2ï¿½ hours."
New York Daily News
"Chekhov's brilliant blending of pathos and comedy is fiendishly difficult to execute, and in this uneven rendition - as is sadly the case with most productions - the results are mixed, at best.
New York Post
"This ï¿½Vanyaï¿½-- with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Denis Oï¿½Hare and Peter Sarsgaard -- is like a noble oak chopped up into firewood."
"flawed but often vibrant and intimate production" & "Still, there are many pleasures in this engaging, thoughtful staging," Linda Winner
"This Vanya and his unhappy friends and family are an active bunch, constantly dancing, joking, even wrestling each other to the ground. ... While this is a relief from the usual languid staging, Pendleton and his players too often go too far in the opposite direction."
"very lively production ... emotional power."
"Director Austin Pendleton has enlivened a satisfactory, humor-garnished banquet of tragic Chekovian themes"
"Austin Pendleton's helming is physically energetic and far less gloomy than the customary theatrical take, allowing a sterling ensemble to exercise its comedic chops on the scribe's complaining privileged classes."