'Uncle Vanya' review — Steve Carell brings his comic chops to a dramatic classic

Read our review of Uncle Vanya on Broadway, starring Steve Carell in the title role of the classic Anton Chekhov play newly translated by Heidi Schreck.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

As a showcase for Steve Carell’s Broadway debut and sporting a fresh translation by Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me), the Anton Chekhov classic Uncle Vanya lands at Lincoln Center in a glow of wonder: "What will that be like?"

At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the contemporary take loses a bit of that luster and emerges, at best, a curiosity. To be sure, there’s a cast of committed actors, including Carell, who appears to have been directed to play himself as Vanya; eye-catching design elements; and splashy rain effects (precipitation is a trend this season on the Great Wet Way).

Unlike the characters who mention being bored at least a dozen times, the staging by director Lila Neugebauer (Appropriate) isn’t dull. It seems particularly bent on tickling out humorous textures right up until the very end. Still, one wishes the revival added up to a more cohesive and persuasive experience.

Chekhov’s story is steeped in melancholy and the sting of unrequited feelings. That’s the way things roll on a Russian estate dutifully, if not monotonously, managed for years by Vanya and his niece, Sonia (Alison Pill). Then Vanya’s late sister’s husband, Alexander (Alfred Molina), a professor, pops in for a visit with his new wife, Elena (Anika Noni Rose), a man magnet. Astrov (William Jackson Harper), a local doctor, gets caught up in estate-wide dramas and a daisy chain of desire and discontent.

By the time the play reaches its conclusion, and thwarted dreamers and would-be romantics surrender to more of the same-old same-old, you can typically expect to feel a twinge of sadness. Or empathy. Or… something. Broadway’s 11th Uncle Vanya left me wanting.

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Uncle Vanya summary

First seen in 1899, Uncle Vanya follows a dysfunctional family living on a Russian country estate, where unrequited love and existential despair grow like weeds. As tensions rise among residents and visitors, the characters confront their wasted lives, unfulfilled desires, and the futility of their actions.

Chekhov’s much-admired masterwork premiered on Broadway in 1923. Since then, 10 more productions have explored its themes of disillusionment, longing, and the search for meaning. The play explores the complexities of interpersonal relationships and is alternately warm, amusing, and poignant.

What to expect at Uncle Vanya

The big question: How does Carell do on stage? Known for comedies such as The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell doesn’t deviate from his comfort zone as Vanya. His character’s signature dimension is clownish petulance, and he lets it all hang out, as directed. In one display of over-the-top, furniture-forward acting, he climbs atop a long table during a heated confrontation.

Elsewhere, as Elena, who leaves chaos in her wake, Rose exudes boredom. Pill makes the most of Sonia’s wrenching late-in-the-play resignation, and Molina is aptly self-absorbed as the retired academic. As an angsty physician and tree-hugger, Harper energizes the proceedings.

Mimi Lien’s scenic design sets a mood and is one of the pluses of the show. In Act 1, a floor-to-ceiling sepia-toned photograph of bare trees occupies the back wall, hinting at bittersweetness that feels right for Uncle Vanya. The second act moves inside the estate, where the backdrop has changed to an ornate oversized tapestry. Visually striking and a little odd, it slyly speaks to lives unraveling.

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What audiences are saying about Uncle Vanya

In the run-up to the play’s official opening at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, Uncle Vanya earned a 67% audience approval ranking on Show-Score, where posters responded to the play’s acting and intelligence.

  • "I dare say you may never have seen such an accessible yet powerful version. My guest was a first timer and was moved also." - Show-Score user JoeyFranko
  • "See it if you enjoy modern interpretations of classics with a sparse set and contemporary costumes, language and mannerisms." - Show-Score user DARTheatreLover
  • "There is no angst, no sexual tension, no existential dread." - Show-Score user gloria 6311

Read more audience reviews of Uncle Vanya on Show-Score.

Who should see Uncle Vanya

  • Steve Carell fans should attend if they're keen on seeing where Uncle Vanya fits alongside past TV and movie roles. Is it more Little Miss Sunshine or Crazy, Stupid, Love?
  • Fans of Schreck’s self-inspired What the Constitution Means to Me will want to see her rendering of a classic as she writes in a different mode.
  • Chekhov completists should see it if they never miss an opportunity to spend time with his characters.

Learn more about Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya offers a chance to see a starry revival of a beloved play that’s been given a fresh coat of inspiration.

Learn more and get Uncle Vanya tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Uncle Vanya is at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through June 16.

Additional Uncle Vanya content

Photo credit: Uncle Vanya on Broadway. (Photos by Marc J. Franklin)

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