Theater Review: UNCLE VANYA (The New American Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on November 25, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


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 New American Theatre’s Uncle Vanya, director Jack Stehlin, working from Constance Garnett’s translation, chooses to do a little of both. Florence Kemper Bunzel’s rich costumes and Clare Scarpulla’s simple design of drawing room walls and a 2-D blue forested backdrop evoke the period in which the play was written (1897), but the modern sensibilities of a swell ensemble ensure that Chekhov’s poetry doesn’t appear as something foreign, but which could be happening right now. It also helps to stress the prescient scribe’s prediction of environmental disaster if humans continue consuming at the going rate. For those who need their Chekhov fix, this production fits the bill nicely, even as it could use more levity and character-driven humor. The nearly two-hour two act fairly flies by.

As with 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. 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.

David Purdham is terrific as Serebryakóv, the retired professor with numerous afflictions and a wife who is much too young for him. With deft precision, Mr. Purdham captures the failed intellectual who turns out to be little more than a petty, selfish, egotistical pedant. Also excellent is Don Harvey as Ványa, Serebryakov’s former brother-in-law, who’s sacrificed his youth working on the estate to support the professor only to find himself bitter and disillusioned with him. Mr. Harvey captures beautifully Vanya’s sarcasm, cynicism, desperation, and self-loathing. The handsome Brian Henderson is most believable as the doctor, Astrov, a self-despising shell of the man he once was. Michael Matthys is delightful as the guitar-playing Telégin, aka “Waffles.”

Jade Sealey and Brian Henderson in Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, directed by Jack Stehlin at The New American Theatre photo: Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin

The actresses contain love and spirituality in their portrayals of their characters, two qualities which are absolutely essential to making their roles work. Jade Sealey ensures that Yelena is an intelligent, sensitive, loving woman who made a choice, for whatever reason, to cut herself off from life by marrying the old, stifling professor. Eve Danzeisen plays Sónya, Professor Serebryakov’s grown daughter from his first marriage and Vanya’s niece. Great in both the relatively light-hearted beginning and the complex emotions as the play progresses, she captures Sonya’s simplicity, her wise tenderness and sincerity. April Adams is perfectly cast as the old nanny, Marina; her maternal concern balances out the character’s scatter-brained persona. The inimitably watchable Janellen Steininger is appropriately small-spirited as Maria, mother of Vanya and Professor Serebryakov’s first wife. Iulia Brezeanu rounds out the cast as an Estate Worker, but strangely there was barely a hint of character.

This low-budget affair isn’t a revelation, frankly, but it’s loving ensemble and lack of stuffiness make it a perfect way to introduce Chekhov to newbies while reminding those of us familiar with his work just how amazingly universal his writings remain.

photos by Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin

Uncle Vanya
The New American Theatre
1312 N. Wilton Place in Hollywood
ends on December 7, 2019 EXTENDED through February 29. 2020
for tickets, call 310.424.2980 or visit New American Theatre

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