Off-Broadway Theater Review: UNCLE VANYA (Pearl Theatre Company)

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by Paulanne Simmons on September 24, 2014

in Theater-New York


These days when directors revive a classic, they have to decide whether their approach will be either to modernize the play or mount it as a period piece, true to the spirit of the times in which it was created. Sometimes, as in the case of the The Pearl’s Uncle Vanya, the director chooses to do a little of both.

UNCLE VANYA, Pearl Theatre Company - photo by Al Foote III.

Thus Hal Brooks (The Pearl’s new artistic director) has opted for Jason Simms’ gentle and elegant interior—appropriate for a tasteful landowner—set against a romantic countryside backdrop; and Barbara A. Bell’s costumes evoke the period in which the play was written: 1897. But he uses a translation by the Russian-language scholar Paul Schmidt, who has been lauded for making Chekhov accessible to American audiences. And he encourages a broad style of acting that sometimes makes the play seem more like a sit-com than a Russian classic.

UNCLE VANYA, Pearl Theatre Company. (Photo by Al Foote III)

Like most of Chekhov’s work, Uncle Vanya deals with the frustrations of people who do not fully understand their unhappiness, and could not change if they did. In this case, Vanya and his niece Sonya manage a country estate while her father Professor Serebriakov, Vanya’s brother-in-law by the professor’s first marriage, lives in the city off the proceeds.

UNCLE VANYA, Pearl Theatre Company. Photo by Al Foote III

To make matters worse, Serebriakov has recently married Yelena, a vibrant younger woman. When he visits the estate with his stylish and seductive wife, both Vanya and the local doctor, Astrov, fall in love with her. Romance makes them rowdy.

Laughter should come easily to those watching this production. Bradford Cover is at the center of much merriment as the cynical Dr. Astrov, who is blithely unaware of the torch that poor, plain Sonya (Michelle Beck) carries for him. His assumption that Yelena (Rachel Botchan) is using surreptitious means to declare her love for him is particularly effective.

UNCLE VANYA, Pearl Theatre Company (photo by Al Foote III).

When Vanya (Chris Mixon) barges in unexpectedly, the play seems so modern that one almost expects a commercial to intrude. On the other hand, Robin Leslie Brown as Marina, the nurse, is always a source of amusement, but in a very Chekhovian way.

UNCLE VANYA, Pearl Theatre Company (photo by Al Foote III)

There’s nothing wrong with giving Chekhov’s meandering plots and drawn-out dialogue a shot in the arm. But this should never take away from the subtlety of his characterizations. Too often in this production we know too much too quickly. Chekhov’s plays are all about these feckless, desperate, and unfulfilled souls finding out the depth of their despair. If they enter having already lost their defenses, then they have nothing left to discover.

UNCLE VANYA, Pearl Theatre Company. Photo by Al Foote III.

With the emphasis on comedy, particularly the misplaced and misunderstood affections of Astrov, Yelena, and Sonya, the titular character himself often seems superfluous. And when the professor and Yelena leave and life goes back to its monotonous routine, it’s hard to understand what the fuss was all about.

photos by Al Foote III

Uncle Vanya
Pearl Theatre Company
The Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street
Tues at 7; Wed, Sat & Sun at 2; Thurs-Sat at 8
scheduled to end on October 12, 2014
for tickets, call 212.563.9261 or visit

{ 1 comment }

Lewis September 25, 2014 at 9:49 am

” … found more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee … ”
Ira Gershwin penned this … and it always comes to mind whenever a Chekhov opus fails to deliver, (which is far too often nowadays)!

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