Review: Steve Carell Is a Lovable Loser in a Fragmentary ‘Uncle Vanya ‘

Carrell and a stand-out Alison Pill lead a strong cast in a modern-dress Chekov revival that never quite gels.

Steve Carell and Alison Pill in Uncle Vanya. Marc J. Franklin

It’s Chekhov 101 to say his characters inhabit separate worlds that rarely converge. All those rueful doctors, vain landowners, stoic laborers, and pretentious artists jabber across the samovar without really connecting or changing. Sure, they level pistols at each other (and themselves) or profess undying love, but such flashes of passion smack of solipsistic play-acting. Therein lies the comedy dusted with melancholy. Still, if Chekhov’s people are not in the same play, you hope the actors inhabiting them will be. Such is not really the case in Lincoln Center Theater’s starry but arid Uncle Vanya, staged with noncommittal chill by Lila Neugebauer

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Mimi Lien’s scenic design bluntly underscores the sense that these “Russians” (scare quotes because they’re vaguely Americanized) are planets whose orbital paths do not intersect. Her set pieces crouch at the edges of the Vivian Beaumont’s broad stage, emphasizing psychic distance by maximizing negative space. The first two acts have a backyard, cottagecore vibe—picnic table, folding chairs, bench, and a huge black-and-white photograph of birch trees covering the back wall. (All very wood-ish.) The second act brings us inside the home of agricultural manager Vanya (Steve Carell) and his niece Sonya (Alison Pill), but the tasteful, midcentury decor seems equally repelled to the periphery. 

The cast of Lincoln Center Theater’s Uncle Vanya. Marc J. Franklin

If the furniture is having an existential crisis, so are the depressed folks perched on it. Vanya is a middle-aged crank who sacrificed love and happiness for duty, drudging for decades on a farm and funneling money to Alexander (Alfred Molina), a pompous fraud of an art professor. Alexander was married to Vanya’s deceased sister, and the homely, naïve Sonya is the product of that union. Elena (Anika Noni Rose), Alexander’s much younger second wife, is an exquisitely bored nymph after whom Vanya lusts—as does family friend Astrov (William Jackson Harper), a local doctor who moonlights in environmentalism and binge drinking. Oh, almost forgot: Sonya loves Astrov, Vanya hates Alexander, and there’s a non-speaking local youth (Spencer Donovan Jones) who casts sad, smoldering looks at Sonya. The last element is an invention by Neugebauer, yet another iteration of unrequited love in this matryoshka of misery.  

Uncle Vanya (a new take comes along every few years) is not exactly breakfast—as in, you have to work hard to screw it up—but its performers usually have solid support. Once they’ve polished their patronymics, they can settle into pathos-rich comedy tinged with Chekhov’s prophetic sense that pre-revolutionary Russia was about to crater under the idle protagonists’ feet. One of his signature tricks is musing about the generations to come. “People who are alive a hundred—two hundred years from now,” cynic-idealist Astrov wonders, “what will they think of us? Will they remember us with kindness?” Similar to the way that Shakespeare articulated unseen and unseeable inner life (Hamlet’s inky cloak), Chekhov cultivated anxious futurity in his restless people. Perhaps he was asking himself: Will my extremely specific Slavic material be relevant a century down the road?

William Jackson Harper in Uncle Vanya. Marc J. Franklin

The answer is yes, of course. Unless you’re allergic to Dr. Anton’s blend of bleakness and whimsy, the physician-playwright still grabs us with his clinical yet sympathetic dissection of human frailty. So, what are Neugebauer, her design team (including Kaye Voyce on costumes and Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper on lights), and an A-list ensemble doing to keep us focused on Vanya’s angsty journey from surly bitterness to…well, catatonic despair? The current version by the formidable Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) doesn’t attempt anything too radical. The language is more or less vernacular American with a light dusting of profanity (three shits, a fuck, a few hells and craps). Despite the modern clothing and furnishings, there are no smartphones or laptops in sight. When I first heard that Schreck was translating, I had this nutty hope she might flip the gender of the title figure. Gimmicky? Yep. But it would be something.

That is, something more than an efficient but lukewarm modern-dress Vanya with fine actors who never quite gel. I’d see Harper (Primary Trust) in anything; he’s a sui generis compound of tetchiness, insecurity and warmth, but I didn’t particularly buy his friendship with Vanya or even his status as doctor. By the third act he has traded hospital scrubs for paint-spattered leisurewear, and you wonder if Astrov’s gone on sabbatical to improve his stippling and brushwork. Carell is the celebrity draw, of course, and it’s neat to see him modulate his movie-star shtick—bashful-teen-trapped-in-middle-aged-dude’s-body—to something rawer and more anguished. For Vanya’s hysterical third-act meltdown, bewailing years of waste, Carell leaps on the kitchen table and crawls across it, screaming at Molina like a plump tabby cat having its midlife crisis. 

Others onstage seem either miscast (Rose) or under-directed (Molina), but Pill proves to be the evening’s MVP with a painfully yearning Sonya. The gawky spinster-in-training is red meat for young actors, and Pill radiates nervy panic from every pore. Pale and reedy, she scrunches her face into a rictus of pain, yet never tips into overacting. Rendered in English, some of Chekhov’s pet descriptors (not just in Vanya) are “weird,” “strange,” “stupid” and their variants. To be human is to be a freak, and Pill embodies that brokenness with a palpable heat I wish could have ignited everything around her.

Uncle Vanya | 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. | Vivian Beaumont Theater | 150 W. 65th Street | 212-239-6200 | Buy Tickets Here  


Review: Steve Carell Is a Lovable Loser in a Fragmentary ‘Uncle Vanya ‘