When it comes to Chekhov, one of the more tedious yet inevitable arguments is over the tragic-comic ratio. He called them comedies!, howls the laughing-Anton camp. That means we need to add quirk and slapstick to offset all the funereal solemnity. Not so, counters the weeping-Anton camp. Stanislavsky et al. understood that these are delicate, teary-eyed portraits of lost souls. There’s no winning such stylistic wrangles, and they tend to distract from what is happening in the plays on a moment-to-moment basis. Ultimately, we’re never going to fully comprehend what the Russian playwright considered “funny” or “sad.” (In his memoirs, Stanislavsky notes that Chekhov giggled at strange little things.) In fact, this genre's indeterminacy is what makes the final works so strong. Unfortunately, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya, presented by Lincoln Center Festival, is a prime example of comic overcompensation and belabored, pseudo-Russian volatility. It’s very hard to see the play through so much overacting and directorial gilding.
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Tamás Ascher made an impressive New York debut three summers ago with an Ivanov that moved Chekhov’s moody drama to the Soviet era and threw in a certain amount of grotesquerie and dark whimsy. Ivanov is one of the writer’s lesser works, and can bear some conceptual nudging. But this collaboration between Ascher and a high-profile troupe of Australians (led by Cate Blanchett) is not nearly so successful. The story of dissolute, disillusioned country drudge Vanya (Roxburgh), his cynic-idealist friend Doctor Astrov (Weaving) and their various entanglements with the bored, married Yelena (Blanchett) comes across as shrill, hammy and crassly telegraphed. When the drunken Vanya dances a few blissful steps with Yelena, the casual embrace becomes a desperate, rapey grope. Kisses between Yelena and her plain, spinsterish stepdaughter, Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), are a strained pantomime of awkwardness and mutual aversion. Faces are slapped, hard; pillows are used as weapons; people bellow and hug themselves and whipsaw from cackling to weeping. The hysteria reaches its apex when Yelena, worked into a frenzy of sexual frustration by Astrov, must cool her lady parts by backing into an open fridge. You can practically see Ascher on the sidelines egging on his cast: “Bigger, bigger! More Russian!” But even the Russians I’ve seen doing Chekhov (under Lev Dodin’s direction) were never this Russian.
The result is a Vanya that is certainly never dull—and apparently terrified that the audience will grow bored. But when you start noticing how the actors seem driven to make big, quirky choices with their characters every five seconds, then this version (with showily blunt dialogue adapted by Andrew Upton) becomes undeniably monotonous. The parade of rehearsal-room ideas should have been discarded in week two. Ascher’s choice to set his production around the 1940s has very little effect, except that it allows him to put a radio onstage for tinny, jaunty Russian tunes. Astrov rides an offstage motorbike, which is fine. But in the last act, when Astrov leaves the Serebryakov estate with his bags and a large portfolio containing his nature maps, you wonder how he’s going to fit all that stuff on a scooter.
On a superficial level, the acting is vivid and the handsome-looking production, as I say, has the veneer of genuine passion. The actors are talented and hardworking but overwrought, taking the basic truth that Chekhov’s characters are self-dramatizers to a numbing extreme. Blanchett—luscious, feline, sweetly cruel—would, in principle, make a perfect Yelena. But neither she nor the flamboyantly pathetic Roxburgh connects with other characters, or the drama they’re in.
But who cares what the critics say? This starry, overpraised production is sold out. My advice: If you want to see an Uncle Vanya that’s cheaper ($50), with a superb cast and organic, sensitive direction, try Sam Gold’s staging of Annie Baker’s marvelous adaptation at Soho Rep. In scale, modesty, intensity, intelligence and beauty, it’s quite the opposite of this brutish account. The laughing-Anton camp may say it’s more of the clichéd, dreary Chekhov. But they are too busy looking for the jokes to hear the laughter.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote