No authorial comment has been more widely noted than the request of Chekhov that his plays be performed as comedies. Yet what may have been a much-needed corrective to the Moscow Art Theater’s propensity for long-faced earnestness is no justification of Michael Mayer’s allowing so much of his production of Uncle Vanya to turn into outlandish farce. This great play, like Chekhov’s other masterpieces, is the most tragic of comedies, the tragicomedy of frustration.
Professor Serebryakov is an elderly successful vulgarizer of art history; formerly married to the deceased mistress of the Voynitzky estate, he is husband to the young, beautiful, and bored Yelena. His grown daughter, Sonya, and ex-brother-in-law, her uncle Vanya, slavishly run the estate for him. Vanya, sensitive and intelligent, is hopelessly smitten with Yelena and envious of the fascination the pompous professor undeservedly exudes. The country doctor, Astrov, is an idealistic ecologist, chafed by his stifling milieu but not unaware of his own quixoticism.
Yelena, finally undeceived by her spouse’s otiosity but too proper to cheat, is frozen into marmoreal boredom. Irritated by Vanya and unwilling to yield to her fascination with Astrov, she plays intermediary for the plain Sonya, who vainly yearns for the doctor. The cast is rounded out by Maria Vasilyevna, Vanya’s widowed mother, another woman taken in by Serebryakov; Telegin, a ruined landowner and permanent parasitic houseguest; and Marina, the faithful old nanny.
Out of this ill-assorted mix residing, summering, or merely lingering on the estate, Chekhov creates a combustible mixture of longing, languishing, seething, and posturing whose comic outbursts merely punctuate the underlying melancholy.
If you have seen the meteoric Astrov of Laurence Olivier and the heartbreaking Vanya of Ralph Richardson – but even if you haven’t – you’ll have little patience for the affected, self-dramatizing Astrov of Roger Rees, who turns the play’s most positive character into a twitchy near-psychotic; you will also be disappointed by the able Derek Jacobi’s too histrionic, capering Vanya. The good Brian Murray makes Serebryakov monochromatically laughable; Amy Ryan piles poor acting on top of aggressive unappealingness as Sonya. David Patrick Kelly’s Telegin is an obnoxious pipsqueak, and Rita Gam’s Maria Vasilyevna (in a part that seems to have been shortened) registers nothing. At least Anne Pitoniak proves dependable as the old nurse.
Mike Poulton’s translation is up-to-date; the gifted Tony Walton has devised rather bizarre scenery and hit-or-miss costumes; the excellent David Van Tieghem for once contributes misplaced music – but first-rate bird sounds; and Kenneth Posner’s lightning is again irreproachable. Michael Mayer must shoulder the bulk of the blame for turning Uncle Vanya into a tantrum in a samovar, and changing vodka into sarsaparilla.