Broadway Review: UNCLE VANYA (Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont)

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by Paola Bellu on May 4, 2024

in Theater-New York


Anton Chekhov’s 1897 Uncle Vanya is a comic tragedy and one of the hardest plays to stage because the main actors have a significant change of identity throughout the story, and the director has to make the transition into the dramatic part smooth and credible. In Heidi Schreck‘s version at Lincoln Center, the plot remains linear and very human: plain Sonya (Alison Pill) and her uncle Vanya (Steve Carell) have devoted their lives to managing the family farm in a rural Russian forest; Sonya’s mom died leaving them the estate to run and they do their best, keeping no money for themselves, sacrificing everything for the family. With them, we find the matriarch Maria, Vanya’s mother and Sonya’s grandmother (Jayne Houdyshell); Marina, her hilarious nurse (Mia Katigbak); Waffles (Jonathan Hadary) an impoverished landowner; and Astrov (William Jackson Harper) a charming visiting physician.

Steve Carell as Vanya

Their lives change when Sonya’s father Alexander (Alfred Molina), a pompous retired professor and a chronic complainer, moves in for the summer together with his glamorous young wife Elena (Anika Noni Rose). The couple comes from the city and constantly shows their disdain for the boring rural life; the heat is unbearable, the professor’s gout is making him even more unpleasant, if possible, and Vanya can barely stand him — “A learned old dried mackerel” he calls him, full of resentment. But Vanya is terribly attracted by Yelena, the professor’s wife, and when he drinks too much vodka he cannot hide it.

William Jackson Harper and Alison Pill

Plain wholesome Sonya always believed that only work is truly fulfilling but she has been secretly in love with the handsome doctor for quite some time. Elena’s presence makes her bolder and, even if everybody knows about her infatuation, the doctor has no clue and no feelings for the young girl but a definite penchant for Elena, just like Vanya. The sexy young wife is so bored she keeps teasing both just to have a bit of fun since her husband is a hypochondriac and an absolute pain in the neck. We are still in the realm of comedy until the professor decides to sell the estate with absolutely no feelings for the people in his family who sacrificed their lives to keep it going. It doesn’t even belong to him but to his daughter.

The Cast of Lincoln Center's Uncle Vanya

It’s a fast crescendo that transforms a comedy into a tragedy and unfortunately it doesn’t work in this adaptation at the Vivian Beaumont TheatreMimi Lien’s sets are as plain as Sonya: a bright large hideous linoleum wood-looking floor undermined any other colors in the production; a blurry forest background made us feel as if it was always a very foggy sunrise or sunset, certainly not the summer hot days they were describing, and a bunch of props scattered around with no plausibility and only functionality in mind did the rest. The next set was a cheap brocade wall with icicles on top to define the interior of the farm in winter; both sets were not minimalistic enough to justify a post-modern adaptation and certainly did not show the poetry intrinsic in Chekhov’s play. Real water pouring in from the fly loft to frame the storm doesn’t help, it’s the only special effect and comes off like a waste of production money.

William Jackson Harper and Anika Noni Rose

Kaye Voyce’s costumes were also not specific to a historical period and tried to hyper-define the characters adding more chaos; 90s bodycon dresses to accentuate Elena’s curves clashed with Astrov’s modern T-shirt, ripped up jeans and sneakers, or her husband new romantic outfits, or Sonya’s J Crew look, more appropriate for a Maine teenager than a Russian farmer. They all seemed to have been parachuted from different plays into this one; Uncle Vanya is such a human play that it could be staged in any time and place, but you have to choose one road to travel. Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper‘s lighting help when needed, adding better time lapses and darkening unused parts of stage, but they follow direction and stay low-key.

Steve Carell and Alison Pill

The best part is the acting: Steve Carell gives us a perfect Vanya, until that is he sees Elena kiss Astrov and hears his brother-in-law’s narcissistic plans. The drama explodes and he comes off as looks comical even when he is trying to kill his nemesis in total desperation. The best part is the acting: Steve Carell gives us a perfect Vanya, until, that is, he sees Elena kiss Astrov and hears his brother-in-law’s narcissistic plans. The drama explodes and Carell still comes off as comical even when he is trying to kill his nemesis in total desperation. Director Lila Neugebauer should have paid more attention because I am sure Carell was ready and eager to do it. But Neugebauer seems to prioritize the comedy aspect, making Alison Pill’s Sonya almost a character from a silly high-school movie, hopelessly dorky, self-loathing, the mousy kid with no self-esteem acting like a spoiled Californian teenager, certainly not the proper lonely country girl described by Chekhov who grew up fast, poor, and worked all the time.

William Jackson Harper

William Jackson Harper is captivating and endearing as Dr. Astrov, engaging the audience every time he is on stage, making his part memorable; Jonathan Hadary shines as Waffles, inhabiting his character effectively and passionately as the aloof and genuine fellow who lost his fortune; Mia Katigbak as nurse Marina gives us the needed wry humor both in her lines and movements — I wish she and Hadary had bigger parts because they are outstanding. Jayne HoudyshellAnika Noni Rose, and Alfred Molina, all excellent actors, are also impeccable in their roles, and Heidi Schreck, who translated and adapted the play, makes sure to give them the right lines to bring their characters to life.

Alfred Molina and Anika Noni Rose

This modern version of Uncle Vanya is just like most of the others I have seen so far, a challenging endeavor for directors, an easy trap into which most of them end up falling. It looks linear, a plot-driven story, but even when you have a spectacular cast and a fantastic theatre, you have to make sure that each character’s development is clear and deeply felt by the audience. Like Macbeth, it’s a cursed play.

photos by Marc J. Franklin

Uncle Vanya
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65 Street
2 hours, 25 minutes
for tickets ($39 to $179), visit Vanya Broadway or LCT

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