O, ANTON WHAT DID YOU DO TO DESERVE THIS?
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL AND MAMIE GUMMER IN “UNCLE VANYA” (Photo by Sara Krulwich)
The title of this post is exactly what we feel like screaming after the third abysmal Anton Chekhov production this season, Classic Stage Company’s UNCLE VANYA, i.e., “Enough! No more, please!” Certain lines from the play, as adapted in the flattest, most American-colloquial style imaginable by Carol Rocamora – also pertain: “We’re all exhausted” and, especially, “I’m so bored!” (These seemed to match the thought bubbles emanating from the audience the night I caught it.)
Coincidentally, I saw Director Austin Pendleton the very afternoon before I attended his production, at a favorite Middle Eastern eatery in the West Village. I almost said something to this very sweet man about seeing his show, but decided not to. I’m glad I didn’t. Pendleton, as mentioned, is the nicest person in the world, but of late, a director he ain’t. (He also wasn’t much of an actor in Shakespeare in the Park’s ROMEO AND JULIET two years ago: as Friar Laurence, he kept forgetting his lines in a most terrifying way.) His enervated stage helming is absolutely devoid of any attention-rewarding brio and, with this production, particularly, the actors seem to have been largely left to their own befuddled devices.
On Santo Loquasto’s unattractive, plank-walled set, which is a repeat of the house he did for those doomed Tyrones in the 2003 Broadway LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, the cast meanders aimlessly about, when not suddenly jumping onto a swing, put there for no good reason, other than to possibly terrify the audience member it comes perilously close to thwacking when in motion. From the very first words uttered, after a curtain-raising interminable, deadening silence, in a haplessly mundane cadence by Cyrilla Baer, as the family nurse Marina, you feel you’re stuck somewhere in 1950s Hoosier-land rather than 19th century Russia.
Denis O’Hare, full of sudden flaring fits of anger or rueful playfulness, is more antically Jiminy Cricket than poignantly Uncle Vanya, stuck away toiling on a farm when he yearns for a real life and love. It’s a performance that emphasizes the neurotic over the romantic every time, but his lethal lack of weight is more than matched by Peter Sarsgaard as Astrov, the country doctor who is his rival for the affections of the beautiful Yelena (Maggie Gyllenhaal), trapped in a loveless marriage to the rich, older Serebryakov (George Morfogen, not as insufferably deadly as usual, but just about).
There’s no way around saying this: the character of Astrov, as Sarsgaard plays him, is a big old queen. If this was Sarsgaard’s idea of how to interpret a certain genteel, rural elegance, surely Director Pendleton should have mentioned that, along with a possibly fetching whimsicality, the role also direly required a pair of balls masculine enough to attract both Yelena and poor, unrequited Sonya (Mamie Gummer), Serebryakov’s daughter. Baer’s translation is again no help; when Astrov admits his furtive intimacy with Yelena, “Yes, sir. I embraced her. So there!” you practically expect Vanya to respond, “Get her!” As for Sarsgaard’s wildly flailing, supposedly daring drunk scene, well, I’ve seen characters at show tune bars in the Village like Marie’s Crisis behaving in much the same fashion after too many Cosmopolitans. To quote my favorite line of all time from MAD TV, “he was gayer than George Michael sucking the filling out of a Twinkie while sitting on a port-o-potty at an ‘NSynch concert. Literally!”
Yelena is not an easy role, as she has to be at once, irresistible to all men, and deeply moving, as well, despite an innate, total selfishness. Lillian Gish must have been fascinating when she played the role on Broadway in 1930, directed by Jed Harris, even though her Vanya and Astrov might have been played by more comely actors than Walter Connolly and Osgood Perkins, respectively, and Julianne Moore was at her luminous best in Louis Malle’s 1994 film VANYA ON 42ND STREET. Gyllenhaal, as she demonstrated in HOMEBODY/KABUL (2003), with a shaky British accent, is decidedly no kind of stage actress. She’s attractive enough, in Suzy Benziger’s sweeping gowns, but her flat, girlish, unvarying voice and inescapably matter-of-fact emoting desperately lack the arching, yearning lyricism necessary for any Chekhov heroine. When the placid surface of Varya’s self-satisfaction is finally ruffled and she declaims her frustration, what emerges from Gyllenhaal is a thin, watery gruel.
There’s a lot more liquid emanating out of Gummer as Sonya, however, in the weepiest performance, since well…her mother, Meryl Streep’s… in whatever child-choosing, baby-eating dingo, nuclear threat saga she may have been wreathed in laurels for in the past. Again, couldn’t Pendleton see that this very energetic, determined young actress was on the wrong, one-note track, which only discounted whatever effective moments she might have had in this admittedly mundanely conceived “I’m crying because I’m so happy” turn?
Louis Zorich as old retainer Telegin gave the only authentic performance, although it must be said that Delphi Harrington, as Vanya’s mother, Maria, was unusually restrained, for once.
LILLIAN GISH, DEFINING ‘EXQUISITE’ IN THE 1930 ‘UNCLE VANYA’, DIRECTED BY JED HARRIS (Photograph by Cecil Beaton)
JULIANNE MOORE, ALSO EXQUISITE, IN LOUIS MALLE’S ‘VANYA ON 42ND STREET’ (1994)