The Great Uncle Vanya Meets A Wrecking Ball Production

Chekhov is such a lovely writer, isn’t he? I think, feeling foolish: Where would we be without him? Where would modern theater be? And humanity, of course, suffering, farcical humanity. “I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence everyone involuntarily felt himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self,” wrote Maxim Gorky. For Chekhov understood better than anyone the frailty of being alive.

With all of his plays and particularly Uncle Vanya , tears and laughter are always close and inseparable. It is within his Russianness that life can be so laughable and tragic. The distinguished critic Charles Marowitz shrewdly pointed out that the secret to Chekhov is that he was a doctor as well as an artist. His medical side gave him his compassionate objectivity about people. His masterpieces are humanely impartial, as if he were saying to us, quite simply and with utter lack of pretension: This is how we are. This man Vanya is a wasted child; she is a vapid beauty; this one a disillusioned idealist; he’s an intellectual buffoon; and she believes with all her heart that we shall all find peace.

“In the world beyond the grave we shall say that we wept and suffered, that our lot was harsh and bitter, and God will have pity on us,” Sonya says in the moving climactic moments of Uncle Vanya . “And you and I, Uncle dear, shall behold a life which is bright and beautiful and splendid. We shall rejoice and look back on our present misfortunes with feelings of tenderness, with a smile. And we shall find peace. We shall, Uncle, I believe it with all my heart and soul. We shall find peace.”

But if you are careless with Chekhov, you are sunk. His great naturalistic plays hover between the apparently mundane and the poetic, between an everyday life of tedium and self-deception and one eternally striving for understanding and happiness. But this delicate balance that has challenged and foxed generations of directors and actors is easily misunderstood, easily wrecked. It’s sad to report, then, that the new production of Uncle Vanya at the Brooks Atkinson, starring Derek Jacobi, is the careless outcome of an unintentional wreckers’ ball.

The prestigious production itself was meant to inaugurate the Roundabout Theatre Company’s newly named home on Broadway, The American Airlines Theater. But the building work hasn’t been completed on time. (They apologize for the unavoidable delay. Regular flights will resume shortly.) It’s arguable that the choice of Uncle Vanya for the inauguration wasn’t too adventurous. It’s a pretty safe choice on the face of it, solid fare for the loyal subscribers. But to import Sir Derek Jacobi to show us all how to do it isn’t a healthy sign of the Roundabout’s maturity. Good though it is to see Mr. Jacobi, of course, there are also two other leading British actors in the cast, Roger Rees and Brian Murray. (They both live here.) But if an important British company were inaugurating a major theater in London with three American actors playing leading roles, there would be uproar. It is not a case of facile nationalism, but of cultural confidence. The War of Independence has long since been won everywhere, except in the anglophile American theater.

You don’t have to be British to play Chekhov. You have to be bloody good. But only Amy Ryan’s moving Sonya, future spinster and domestic slave, shines with quiet integrity here. All the renowned talent and experience of Messrs. Jacobi, Rees and Murray are no use in this otherwise botched Uncle Vanya , particularly as all three of them are hamming it up as if appearing in a touring company in colonial Singapore. The fatally expert, invariably booming, showily external, l9th-century English acting style isn’t terribly Russian. It’s terrible Chekhov.

The director Michael Mayer lists no previous Chekhov productions in his biography. (His last outing was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. ) His inexperience with Chekhov needn’t matter, however. To the contrary, he might have brought a refreshing attack to the Chekhovian clichés of lassitude and ennui, and revealed what’s really at stake–not petulance or boredom with life, but the desperate desire to truly live. Yet there’s no sense of a real ensemble at work here–not even a hint of it. Nothing could be more crucial to Chekhov, yet the different acting styles and accents are permitted to come and go with slovenly indifference. Hey-ho. Plummy British accents collide with American, and Mr. Jacobi’s fruity Englishness as Vanya shares the same house with an Ilya Telegin who verges on a Woody Allen whine.

Where are we? Not in Russia, anyway; nowhere we recognize, except for, alas, the stagy pseudoreality of a rudderless cut-rate Chekhov. Uncle Vanya is a deceptively easy play to stage, but a near impossible one to fulfill. I’m inclined to agree with Ken Tynan that Chekhov created one of the most improbable and least playable heroes in dramatic literature. After all, Vanya fails to shoot his despised former brother-in-law, Serebryakov, the intellectual old fraud he once worshipped, not once, but twice. To miss once is understandable; twice looks like low comedy. Vanya has wasted his life running the estate for his brother-in-law; he’s hopelessly in love with the wrong woman; he moans about everything, but does nothing; he’s probably a mommy’s boy in middle age; and he believes ludicrously that he “might have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoevsky.” On the surface, he’s a clown. Yet, as Tynan said, if we don’t take Vanya seriously, the play collapses.

Mr. Jacobi’s Vanya is too blustery in his loud, indignant rhetoric. Too much the petulant fool, too little the tragic hero. It is said that Vanya is a child in a middle-aged body, but Mr. Jacobi overdoes it. You cannot take a man seriously who looks as if he’s in desperate need of a sticky bun. Small wonder the beautiful, indolent Yelena (played by a so-so Laura Linney) sends this Vanya packing. Mr. Jacobi conveys Vanya’s rage and self-loathing, of course, but this is a Vanya without dignity. As an actor of the Olivier school, he resists few temptations in his theatricality, including cradling his head on Astrov’s shoulder like an overgrown schoolboy in need of a hug (and our indulgent sympathy vote). Astrov isn’t the type to give him a hug, but let it pass. We see him acting, and perhaps we’re meant to. But Vanya the bitter, thwarted intellectual, is absent. So, too, is anything emotionally inward in restrained naturalism, except for the ultimate scene of desolation when Mr. Jacobi’s Vanya sits in silent tears of mourning for his life.

Roger Rees first played Astrov to Michael Gambon’s Vanya in Michael Blakemore’s l988 London production. One can almost smell Mr. Gambon’s otherworldly Vanya with those doleful, hooded eyes of his. But I regret that the accomplished Mr. Rees doesn’t appeal to me, though he does to many. It is his habitual twitchiness onstage, his sudden nervy lurches in different directions as if searching the set for fleas, that irritates. His damaged idealist, Astrov, enjoys the spotlight too much. Even the simple act of drinking a glass of vodka is a production number for Mr. Rees. He knocks it back as if his neck were in plaster, pauses for effect, then bangs his chest for extra effect. Astrov’s a drinker. It ought to come naturally. But then, this is an actor whose Astrov checks himself in a distant mirror while wooing Yelena like a vain English colonel. His troubled wrecked conservationist Doctor Astrov, on the precipice of self-hatred, likes himself too much.

And by now, should one of my favorite actors, Brian Murray, be reading this, he will no doubt be stoically awaiting his turn for the headmaster’s caning. I once wrote of Mr. Murray that he is an actor who will never give a bad performance, only a good or excellent one. This only goes to prove that there’s an exception to everything. Mr. Murray must have taken one look at the goings-on around him, and decided it’s every man for himself. He’s playing the gouty old professor Serebryakov like the Wicked Uncle in pantomime.

What else can I complain about? The Brooks Atkinson stage is as intimate as a canyon; Tony Walton’s opening scene doesn’t convey a garden; Rita Gam’s Maria Vasilyevna is costumed inappropriately like a grand duchess; the storm scene–crucial to the simmering, claustrophobic mood of the piece–begins, and ends, with a big bang. Chekhovian storms rumble; other storms bang. Finally, to have Vanya shoot at Serebryakov, and miss, is only right; but to have the bullet hit a portrait hanging on the wall that wobbles and clonks absurdly to the floor reduces Uncle Vanya to The Three Stooges.