Uncle Vanya with Waterworks; Will Ferrell as Doofus in Chief

heilpernmaggie gyllenhaal a Uncle Vanya with Waterworks; Will Ferrell as Doofus in ChiefExpression: Chew the scenery.

Definition: To act melodramatically; overact; ham it up.

We’ve all seen actors chew the scenery from time to time. It goes with the territory. But how many of us can claim to have seen an actor actually gnaw on a set?

My thanks to the Tony Award–winning Denis O’Hare for providing a first in my theatergoing lifetime. Playing the tortured, frustrated Vanya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Classic Stage Company, Mr. O’Hare no doubt wished to convey his thwarted desire for the young and beautiful—and married—Yelena (Maggie Gyllenhaal). True, he’d been hamming it up all night.

Expression: Chew the scenery.

Definition: To act melodramatically; overact; ham it up.

We’ve all seen actors chew the scenery from time to time. It goes with the territory. But how many of us can claim to have seen an actor actually gnaw on a set?

My thanks to the Tony Award–winning Denis O’Hare for providing a first in my theatergoing lifetime. Playing the tortured, frustrated Vanya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Classic Stage Company, Mr. O’Hare no doubt wished to convey his thwarted desire for the young and beautiful—and married—Yelena (Maggie Gyllenhaal). True, he’d been hamming it up all night. But when he gnawed on a wooden pillar of Santo Loquasto’s cramped set, I could have kissed him.

Mr. O’Hare made theater history for me, and I can never take that away from him. Furthermore, he made an agitated grrrrrr sound as he chomped on the pillar, and I don’t blame him one bit. The pillar was blocking the view (as were the other pillars). Did Mr. O’Hare—the uncharitable thought occurred to me—grow so maniacally frustrated with the set that he decided to eat it?

While there’s no weirder symbol of Austin Pendleton’s hyperactive, utterly un-Chekhovian production of Uncle Vanya than Mr. O’Hare sinking his teeth into the woodwork, the set design by the usually excellent Mr. Loquasto is an expensive blunder.

The three-sided stage at the intimate CSC has always been awkwardly confined. But the designer’s overstuffed set, divided up by those obtrusive pillars, only serves to cramp the playing area even more. Intended to represent the Serebryakov estate—with its 26-room house—the structure Mr. Loquasto built is more like a claustrophobic log cabin. There’s no sense of air or the outdoors, though Act I takes place entirely in the garden. (Chekhov subtitled the play “Scenes From Country Life.”)

Mr. Loquasto’s cumbersome set is also two-tiered, giving the production height instead of depth. Yet the upper rooms are rarely used by the director—and when they are, the clumsy outcome is the very thing Chekhov’s stage naturalism opposed. Thus Yelena traipses self-consciously up the staircase, and all the way down again, in order to say to Astrov, “I’m taking this pencil to remember you by.”

 

THIS Uncle Vanya proves again that star actors (principally Ms. Gyllenhaal and her partner, Peter Sarsgaard) are no guarantee of artistic success. (The starry Hedda Gabler at the Roundabout with the monotone Mary-Louise Parker makes the same point.) Ms. Gyllenhaal, better known for her film work, possesses too little stage experience to create a convincing portrait of Yelena’s tedium and corrosive vapidity.

Her voice, for one thing, crucially lacks tone and emotional range. She’s too preoccupied with being languid, and she’s inappropriately touchy-feely with more or less everyone around her. (The unhappily married, bewitching Yelena is not the sort of lady who snuggles.)

All actors have something in common with Chekhov’s Russian characters: They laugh and cry easily. And yet I’ve never seen a weepier Uncle Vanya than this one. (Isn’t the golden acting rule to let the audience do the weeping?) Ms. Gyllenhaal, I’m afraid, is the worst offender: She appears to be crying and laughing simultaneously—you can’t always tell the difference. She’s giving an ingratiating performance.

But with one outstanding exception (Mamie Gummer’s delightful Sonya), everyone in Mr. Pendleton’s wayward production is melodramatically out of sync. I admired Mr. Sarsgaard’s insinuating, spiritually dead Trigorin in the recent Seagull, but his 37-year-old Dr. Astrov is less the embittered crusading conservationist who sees through everyone (including himself) and more a grungy, confused adolescent with a crush. An excellent stage actor, Mr. Sarsgaard has yet to find the Astrov whose love for the idle beauty Yelena—for the superficial—is a lost cause.

But then, we have that elderly professorial buffoon Serebryakov (Yelena’s lucky husband), played in his opening scene by George Morfogen as if he were a gouty Methuselah, and in his later scenes as if he’d taken a miracle youth drug.