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A CurtainUp Review
Uncle Vanya

. . .I've not lived, not lived, I tell you. Thanks to you the best years of my life have been thrown down the drain. . .
--- Vanya
Sir Derek Jacobi
Sir Derek Jacobi
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Those who pride themselves in having seen the best interpreters of Chekhov's famously unhappy Vanya, can now add Sir Derek Jacobi to their list. Jacobi is saddled with Michael Mayer's improvisational helmsmanship which, like a Troika without a firm driver, has actors wandering hither and yon and talking to the audience almost as much as to each other. Yet seeing him LIVE is a not to be missed treat for American audiences who know him mostly through his film and television work.

I've been a major Jacobi enthusiast since his unforgettable portrayal in I Claudius and Breaking the Code and found him intriguing and enjoyable to watch even in this less than superlative version of Chekhov's tragi-comic masterpiece. Known for giving his characters the sort of tics and quirks that establish a distinctive flesh and blood personality, he does not disappoint here. His Vanya is charming but angry; coolly ironic, yet overwrought like a schoolboy with yearning for his brother-in-law's lovely wife. (He almost convinces you he's no older than 47.) His finger points and retracts, his hands pressing against each other as if to snatch back what he's said. Those hands express as much frustration as a man literally beating his head against the wall. His pale face reddens during his one showy outburst against the pompous brother-in-law, Serebraykov (Brian Murray), and turns into a mask of anguish when he resigns himself to his stagnant existence.

If, despite its many productions you've never seen Uncle Vanya, you could do a lot worse than to become acquainted with it via the Roundabout's handsome revival, with its contemporary and very accessible new translation by Mike Poulton (the same version in which Derek Jacobi, but not the other members of the Roundabout cast, also appeared in Chichester and London). The story of these bumbling Russians is not only timeless in its appeal to all who have ever wished they could start their lives over again and historically current in view of what's been happening in Russian in recent years.

To capsulize the plot (a series of incidents more than a drama with a strong dramatic arc), Chekhov mixes farce and anguish to unreel hopeless infatuations, old grudges and ironic humor. Central to the proceedings are Vanya and his niece who have spent their lives caring for the country estate of a relative they regard as a great man, but whose summer stay at the estate with his young wife leads to their painful awakening to the fact that they've wasted their lives on a man who is as untalented as he is uncaring

The performances of Mr. Jacobi 's colleagues at the Roundabout's temporary Broadway home, the Brooks Atkinson, are something of a mixed bag. On the plus side of the ledger, there's Roger Rees as the sad and hard drinking Dr. Astrov. Director Mayer has him inexplicably wander around the set while the audience is getting seated. This directorial touch adds little but may account for the actor's coming across as somewhat mannered at first. Fortunately this quickly gives way to assured and sensitive acting, especially in the scene where he works himself into a fine passion as he tries to convey his intense concern for the endangered Russian forests to the lethargic Yelena (Laura Linney). He is in fact the only one of these characters with any passion, unless discontent counts as such. Astrov's ecological concerns are yet another example of Chekhov's timeliness and adaptability to modernized versions like Jeff Cohen's Uncle Jack (see link below).

Another strong portrait comes from the always excellent Brian Murray who plays Professor Serebraykov with amusingly insufferable pomposity. Murray shows us a little man whose limited intellectual gifts but life-draining selfishness would have been spotted long ago by anyone less failure-prone than Vanya. Of the other major and minor characters who add so much to the enduring impact of the play, only Ann Pitoniak is thoroughly satisfying as the family retainer who tends to her knitting and the de rigueur samovar.

Laura Linney is certainly lovely enough to make both Vanya and Astrov's infatuation with her understandable, but she lacks the famous lethargy that is at the heart of the young wife who's too worn down by her ennui to have more than a flickering interest in Astrov. As the woman who really is aflame with yearning for the inaccessible doctor, Amy Ryan looks the part physically. However, the final scene in which she becomes daughter and mother as well as comforting niece to the devasted Vanya, lacks the luminescence and redemptive power currently seen in the finale of A Moon for the Misbegotten. Neither David Patrick Kelly as the family hanger-on, Telegin, or Rita Gam as the mother who puts her son-in-law over her son make particularly strong impressions.

The production values are impeccable. Tony Walton's tree encircled outdoor-indoor set makes a strong visual statement about the effect of the professor's selfishness on the estate's physical condition as well as the lives of its occupation. His costumes are gorgeous and apt. Strong contributions are also made by Kenneth Posner's lighting and David Van Tieghem's bird and other country sounds.

Uncle Vanya adapted by Brian Friel
Uncle Vanya adapted by Carol Rocamora Uncle Jack, Chekhov, modernized by Jeff Cohen reviews, books.

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Michael Mayer.
Starring Derek Jacobi, Laura Linney, Brian Murray, Roger Rees; also Rita Gam David Patrick Kelly, Anne Pitoniak, Amy Ryan, Torben Brooks, James S. Coyle, Jonah Bay, Greg Keller.
Set and Costume Design: Tony Walton
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Original Music & Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Brooks Atkinson, 256 W. 47th St., (Broadway/8th Av), 719-1300 or 307-4100.
3/21/2000-6/11/2000; opening 4/30/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance

The Broadway Theatre Archive


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