Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
This new adaptation of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" focuses on the bright, comic elements of this bittersweet love story. Craig Lucas devised a script which is fresh and funny, loving and humane, contemporary in sound and traditionally Russian in character. Director Bartlett Sher leads a talented cast to an amusing exercise that is both wisely observant and innocently comedic. There is a sense that he has a real affection for these characters, and that he wanted the tone to be as far removed from the more usual, languishing pace of Chekhov as possible. Although there are still strong elements of the longing and philosophical ennui of the 19th Century Russian gentry, here it seems that only emerges when the comic circus has paused between acts, or at the end of a long day of romantic games and teasing diversions. It's fun, anything but academic, and smartly performed by an excellent cast. It's also beautifully staged, with a large and elegant scenic design by John McDermott, ravishing costumes by Deb Trout and warm, romantic lighting by Brian MacDevitt. An original score by Adam Guettel sets exactly the right tone for a lively romantic romp. The melodies are charming and sweet, the orchestration lovely.
At the center of the story is the hopeless infatuation and pursuit of the beautiful young Elena, wife of the much older Professor Serebriakov, by Vanya. Fortunately, Elena is played by an appropriately beautiful and charming actress, Samantha Mathis. She makes her youth and beauty both irresistible and heartbreaking to those who have left youth behind, and never found beauty in their own lives. The role of Vanya is exuberantly played by Mark Nelson, and his nebbish energy is both funny and sympathetic. His is the classic clown's posture of a man too small for life, occupying space which some other object possesses, perpetually foiled in his preposterous duel with existence. His advances on Elena are sweet and pathetic, desire framed by absurdity. I think the sincerity and vitality he brings to the production are a large part of the reason why the show never seems ponderous or overly sentimental.
Professor Serebriakov, finely detailed by Allen Fitzpatrick, is an only slightly different kind of fool. Wandering through the wilderness of arcane academic trivia, and only momentarily restored at the oasis of a beautiful young wife, he is a scholar of the meaningless. What is more foolish than a man who has squandered his life, and too late seeks to find meaning through simply recognizing and naming what has been lost? When he announces his intention to sell the estate, he is really abandoning an entire life, his lost life, and hoping to put some market value on what is tragically lost.
The doctor called to treat Serebriakov's gout is Astrov (Tim Hopper), who provides a somewhat more removed perspective on the deterioration of this entire lifestyle. When Sonya, Serebriakov's daughter by his first marriage, hopelessly pines for him, it is ironic because her heart is so much more pure than his, yet she fears she is too plain, never recognizing that what she thinks of as plainness, is really a lack of artifice. While Kristen Flanders brings her usual focused and energetic performance to Sonya, frankly she's just a bit too attractive to really carry off a woman of such deep self-doubt.
Todd Jefferson Moore played a sycophantic Telegin with great control and his comic struggle not to seem too eager to please and to always be just short of fully adequate was entertaining and smartly crafted. Lori Larsen played Maria, the mother of Serebriakov's first wife with a bit too much restraint, never quite achieving the same level of clarity as the rest of the cast.
The physical production was absolutely beautiful, with neatly defined playing areas described within large, open wall units that rotated on wagons to re-define the stage space. It was both elegant and spare, and allowed an intimacy for the interactions while also appearing spacious in a way that fit the Russian countryside. It was a lovely, impressive design.
I suspect there will be some who feel this production was too eager to be light-hearted and easily entertaining, and to some reverential Chekhov-devotees the point may be well taken. But I think for anyone just wanting to enjoy an evening of the compassionate observation of a great writer, exploring the ambitions and delusions of romance, this is a satisfying and frequently delightful work. I found myself really liking these people, and wishing them well, and recognizing the familiarity of their human aspirations and delusions. This was an "Uncle Vanya" of great compassion and abundant pleasure.