At The Theater With John Heilpern

Everyman’s Uncle Throws

Temper Tantrum in Chekhov’s Vanya

Chekhov is such a lovely writer, isn’t he? Is there anyone who “gets” us better? Is there any dramatist who better reveals commonplace, laughable life? With all his plays, and particularly Uncle Vanya , tears and laughter are always close, even inseparable. It is within Chekhov’s Russianness that life can seem so absurd and tragic. He was also a doctor, of course, and we can imagine his bedside manner-as humane as his plays, certainly, compassionate rather than sentimental, amusing, truthful, meticulous, detached. You would want him as your doctor, though he can offer no cure for unhappiness.

Chekhov, the most contemporary of dramatists, says to us purely and simply: This is how we are. His plays aren’t “like life.” They are life! This man Vanya is wasted and furious; that woman’s a vapid, idle beauty; this one’s a disillusioned idealist; he’s become an intellectual buffoon; and she believes with all her heart that we shall find peace. “And you and I, Uncle dear, shall behold a life which is bright and beautiful and splendid,” Sonya comforts Uncle Vanya with utter poetic naturalness. “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.”

Is there a character in Uncle Vanya who hasn’t already lost their life? Sonya-plain, unloved Sonya-endures a life of drudgery alone, and nothing will change. Vanya hasn’t even lived. His love for beautiful Yelena is an absurd dream. Astrov, the crusading conservationist who bitterly sees through everyone, including himself, is en route to becoming a disillusioned drunk. His love for Yelena-for the superficial!-is a lost cause, too, a final throw of the dice. And spoilt, indolent Yelena is trapped overvirtuously in her unhappy marriage to the aging professor, who wishes he were dead anyway. Beneath the surface of their lives lived out in lassitude and routine is crushing isolation and failure.

Uncle Vanya is about the dawning of self-knowledge or acceptance. The mystery is its title. What could seem more cozily banal than a play about an uncle! Uncle Vanya, like Auntie Mame, doesn’t suggest a tragedy. Chekhov based the play on his youthful The Wood Demon , switching the melodramatic focus from the brooding Dr. Astrov to Vanya. I’ve written before that I’m indebted to a learned footnote by Eric Bentley, who pointed out in a fine essay on Chekhov that the Russian name Vanya, which sounds exotic to us, is the commonplace equivalent of Jack. It changes everything.

Uncle Jack! Tortured, self-pitying, ordinary Uncle Jack is Chekhov’s Everyman, in a sense. He’s the family member to whom we’re all related, even in his transparent, tragic absurdity. Alas, in Sam Mendes’ production of Uncle Vanya , which comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music via the Donmar Warehouse of London, Simon Russell Beale gives us Vanya’s absurdity without the tragedy. Let it be said that many of my colleagues rave over the British star as well as the production. But if this is Chekhov, it’s a pity.

It surprised me a great deal, for expectations were high. The new production actually comes uncomfortably close to a pastiche of the great play. Chekhov’s naturalistic dramas hover between the apparently mundane and the lyrical, between an everyday life of tedium and self-deception and one eternally striving for fulfillment and happiness. Life corrodes as it passes. “How odd we meet, and then must part forever,” Astrov says in his farewell to Yelena. Everything hangs in the precarious, delicate balance. But too much of the self-consciously “Chekhovian” and you’re lost; too little an authentic sense of time and place, and the center cannot hold. Yet from the outset, Mr. Mendes has placed the action of his Uncle Vanya in no man’s land.

We have no sense of place, no Russia. Where are we? The director and his designer, Anthony Ward, wishing to avoid the traditional approach, give us a neutral open set basically dominated by a dining table some 30 feet long, with various chairs. The room backs onto a vista of what looks like overgrown, heavily symbolic grass. (But symbolic of what, exactly?) As usual, the old nanny sits knitting beside a samovar; Astrov strides up and down. But they now appear to be indoors, whereas Chekhov’s opening scene takes place in a garden with its winding path, ancient poplar tree and evocative swing. The rhythm and halftones of a hot summer day-the atmosphere of lives in flux-are vital to setting the right mood.

Details were always crucial to Chekhov himself. But there’s no sense of overheated claustrophobia, indoors or out. A character says, “Open a window, It’s stifling.” But the set is completely open, looking airily onto the grass vista beyond. The length of the table separates characters from each other in stagy symbolism. But when the burnt-out Professor Serebryakov gathers the entire household for his talk, everyone seats themselves at the table facing him in a long line, like an ersatz tableau of The Last Supper .

Nothing is natural about any of this. There’s a self-consciousness instead. In the opening scene, Marina, the nanny, takes an age to pour from the samovar; Astrov speaks with deliberation; others enter-but from where?-and there’s a grand entrance by Yelena in an agonizingly slow, languid vamp across the stage (which gets easy laughs). Nanny is being Russian, Astrov is being tortured, and Yelena is being languid .

In time, that table will prove too much of a temptation for actors. Mark Strong’s Astrov will suddenly leap onto it in swashbuckling mood, which is plain wrong for anyone except a musketeer, and Simon Russell Beale’s Vanya will even curl up on it in a fetal position, which is plain wrong for anyone who’s marginally sane. We know that Vanya’s upset. But when was the last time you saw an adult curl up like a big baba on a dining-room table?

Is Mr. Beale possibly overacting? He is not an easily embarrassed actor. He’s the only Hamlet I’ve seen let out an endearing “Ouch!” during the fight scene. Laertes must have accidentally whacked him with the flat of his blade, and thus Hamlet went “Ouch!” Mr. Beale’s portly prince wasn’t for me. He’s less the romantic hero, more a character actor (which, in England, is the best kind of actor to be). He uses his short, bulky stature well; he flaunts it in a cuddlesome way. But his Vanya craves our sympathy too much.

He flings himself groveling on the floor before Yelena; sometimes he’s showily on all fours. The British critic Katherine Duncan-Jones compared his Vanya to a needy spaniel hoping someone will love him enough to tickle his tummy. The lady has a point: Mr. Beale has infantilized the role, making Vanya “adorable.” Give me a thin Vanya! As with Derek Jacobi’s tubby version a few seasons ago, you cannot take a man seriously who looks as if he’s pining for a sticky bun.

Though Vanya’s on the verge of middle age, he can be seen as the first modern Angry Young Man. He’s furious with life and sunk in self-hatred. He loathes himself. He announces ludicrously that he “might have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky,” and Mr. Beale conveys his pathetic comic absurdity with ease. But there’s a canyon between the pathetic and the tragic. Uncle Vanya is a dark, tortured soul, not petulant and foot-stomping. He’s tortured by his own failure, he’s not merely upset or throwing a tantrum. Vanya’s useless, unfulfilled life is falling apart. But Mr. Beale’s weak, flinching version has taken the gravitas away.

As a whole, it’s a broadly played production with little subtext. Vanya’s silly mother, Marya, is a woman who reads books and pamphlets but doesn’t understand them. She doesn’t understand her son, either. But she’s played like an evil old crone, bent almost double while exiting theatrically to the clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp of her cane. I found Mark Strong’s Astrov (the role originally played by Stanislavsky) too measured, and Helen McCrory’s Yelena too knowing. There was great pleasure in Emily Watson’s honest, unaffected performance as Sonya. She handled her eternal, heart-breaking speech to enduring hope and redemption that closes the play beautifully.

But then, Brian Friel’s loose new adaptation has made some surprising changes, including the closing, immortal speech. That Mr. Friel is a fine dramatist goes without saying. But why mess with Mr. Chekhov? Why trouble to expand the cameo role of Ilya Telegin, the impoverished landowner, when Chekhov’s miniaturist portrait tells us all we need to know? Why have Vanya comment on Yelena like a cliché of pseudo-Chekhovian scholarship, “Such languor, such languishing, such ennui …. “

Above all, why did Mr. Friel prune Sonya’s last lament of its six renowned invocations of “we shall rest.” Chekhov’s choice was clearly very deliberate: ” … we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, I have a burning and passionate faith … ( Wearily ) We shall rest! We shall rest! We shall hear the angels; we shall see the sky all dressed in diamonds; we shall see all the world’s evil and all our sufferings drown in the mercy that will fill the earth; and our life will become as quiet and gentle and sweet as a caress. I have faith, I have faith …. Poor Uncle Vanya, poor Uncle Vanya, you’re crying. You’ve never known joy in all your life, but you wait, Uncle Vanya, you wait …. We shall rest …. We shall rest! We shall rest!”

They are like the dying notes of a chamber piece and should never be cut. They are the resigned and ecstatic pleas for whom the bells toll.

Uncle Vanya is in repertory with Twelfth Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music until March 9. John Heilpern reviews Twelfth Night next week .