Onscreen, Denis O’Hare has been making a journeyman’s living in steadily growing character roles (Milk, Changeling). Onstage, the gregarious Tony winner (for Take Me Out) has been weaning himself off Broadway, venturing into increasingly dark territory. It’s a career path reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s—right down to O’Hare’s taking on the title role of Uncle Vanya at the Classic Stage Company, alongside Peter Sarsgaard, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Mamie Gummer. He spoke to Boris Kachka about his appreciation for failure and why he thinks CSC’s Vanya is the best Chekhov in town.
What instigated the shift to Off Broadway?
Too much Broadway—it will destroy your acting. It pushes you into bad habits, into pleasing the audience. What I liked about doing [Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play last year] is that no one walked out happy. The audiences weren’t happy, we weren’t happy, and it was a great learning experience. I think it was very, very interesting and, finally, not successful. Maybe it works better performed in [the original] French. And I mean that.
Given your taste for different material, you must have enjoyed doing Pig Farm. It wasn’t reviewed well and seemed like an unpleasant experience.
Here’s the legacy of Pig Farm: I pulled a rib in my back and had a year of physical therapy. [Co-star] John Conlee messed up his shoulder and had a year and a half of therapy and an operation. And two [other] people aren’t speaking to each other. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.
Uncle Vanya won’t cause physical injury, but Chekhov’s still pretty intense.
In Chekhov everybody is flawed. Everybody is a pain in the ass. Which is great. You read Chekhov’s biography, everyone makes everyone else sick.
You seem to know a lot about him.
That’s all I ever studied. My dream would be to have done all four plays in this theater over the next five years, and then bring them all back. In Stanislavski’s time, they always had his plays in their back pocket.
You’re clearly not the only Chekhov fanatic. There have been three major productions of his work in the past six months. What’s the attraction?
It’s the best acting. I don’t know if we’re doing the plays a service, but we’re doing ourselves a great service.
Will you see Sam Mendes’s hip production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM?
I’m conflicted. The Brits don’t do Chekhov well, precisely for the reasons that they do Shakespeare well. They bring a finished quality to it, and Chekhov should be ragged, unpredictable, untamed. Every time we run it, it’s different. I think our production is going to be fairly improvisatory. The problem with a new play is that you don’t know if it works. The problem with a classic is, you know it works, and if there’s a problem, it’s you.