Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
At the Hunter College Frederick Lowe Theater, 68th and Park Avenue
BS Score Rating: C-
Show-Score Rating: 65
Richard Nelson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is disappointing, not so much for the translation of the Russian master’s play but for the production Mr. Nelson has directed on the Frederick Lowe stage at Hunter College. Chekhov’s “scenes from country life in four acts” (the play’s subtitle) is full of humor and emotional angst as seven residents of a rural estate grapple with their inability to find happiness. This production lacks the humor and the emotional clout that makes Chekhov’s work so fascinating.
Mr. Nelson was hailed as a sort of American Chekhov when his two family cycles, the Gabriels and Apple Family, were produced at The Public Theater. Those plays, three in one cycle and four in the other, focused on everyday middle-class family challenges framed around the dates of current major political events, the Obama years and the 2016 election. They were quiet plays that focused on small talk that revealed underlying tensions and frustrations – very Chekhovian.
So, the connection between this playwright/director’s recent successes and this production of Chekhov’s classic is quite clear. Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson has carried over to this Chekhov production one of the elements of the family series that made those plays so special, but also made them a challenge for many audience members. The actors speak at normal voice levels, that is, they do not project their lines. So, it is quite difficult to even hear what the actors are saying, particularly when they are facing in another direction in this theatre-in-the-round setting.
In interviews, Mr. Nelson has contended that this style makes the play more realistic – the people speak as real people speak. He even suggests that the audience’s struggle to simply hear the actors is productive, forcing the audience to pay closer attention. Alas, the effect for Uncle Vanya is quite the opposite. The battle to hear was a massive distraction. In fact, the style was quite unrealistic. Each of the characters is going through a disturbing self-assessment, but each shows little emotion in their voice or gesture. Much of the play’s humor relies on the logical fallacies that each character utters. But with Mr. Nelson’s muttered voices, the play is stripped of its desired effect upon the audience. BTW – Any well-trained actor is fully capable of projecting his/her voice without losing the tone of natural conversation.
Two of the actors from the Public Theater’s family series appear in this production. Jay O. Sanders conquers the restrictions of the production’s style to provide a full-blown and thoroughly interesting portrait of the title character. Similarly, Jon Devries, another Apple family veteran, commands the stage as the aging professor with a beautiful, and surprisingly young, wife
Jesse Pennington is terribly miscast as Mikhail Astrov, the country doctor buried in alcohol and plagued by his conservationist beliefs. His speech is particularly difficult to understand; but, more significantly, he never convinces the audience that his is a troubled soul searching for his identity – a major flaw in the production. Yvonne Woods, as the marriageable but plain daughter of the professor, and Celeste Arias, as the professor’s young wife, both suffer from the totally bland style Mr. Nelson has imposed on the play. Their interactions become indecipherable.
Mr. Nelson clearly has a feel for this play. The adaptation, translated in collaboration with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, very effectively captures Chekhov’s characters’ musings with a sense of contemporary language. The actors are in modern dress. All of the action is set up around a non-descript dining area reinforcing the present-day approach. This simplicity is at the core of Mr. Nelson’s style and it works very well for Chekhov’s portrait of lost souls. Mr. Nelson has elected to have no intermission, a decision that might have been more effective had the production’s style allowed the audience to more effectively enter the world of these characters. But an hour and fifty-minutes of struggling to hear the dialogue would have benefited from 15 minutes of recovery halfway through the four acts. Sitting in the second row, I had the feeling that this might have been a Chekhov production to remember – if I had been sitting in the middle of the stage.