Theater review by Helen Shaw
What happens in Chekhov’s masterpiece Uncle Vanya isn’t as important as what doesn’t happen. The dominant mood is frustration: sometimes the small comic sort, sometimes the tragic kind that builds up in a wasted life. On their shabby country estate, Vanya (Jay O. Sanders) and his niece, Sonya (Yvonne Woods), yearn for passion. Their respective beloveds—Sonya’s glamorous stepmother, Elena (Celeste Arias), and the environmentalist doctor Astrov (Jesse Pennington)—would rather have each other, but even their love story is all fizzle and little fire. Only one man can have what he wants: Sonya’s pompous father, Serebryakov (Jon DeVries), who is Elena’s husband and Vanya’s former brother-in-law. He is the kind of everyday monster who whines about misfortune while simultaneously getting the best of everything. You know the type.
Director Richard Nelson, who co-translated the play with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, stages Vanya as though it’s another in his Apple Family series: an overhead field of microphones that allow actors to murmur their lines, food served and eaten onstage, a homespun set of simple wooden tables and earthenware jugs. Chekhov’s own beliefs about acting emphasized underplaying, simplicity and truth, so Nelson’s intimate aesthetic would seem to accord with his wishes—though Chekhov might have also wanted all his actual characters to make it onstage. To cut the show to its brisk 105-minute running time, this version has edited out poor old “Waffles” Telegin, a kind fool who usually serves as a warm reflection of Vanya. The effect is to make the play more fully Vanya’s tragedy, a character study rather than a balanced composition.
But after just a few minutes with Sanders, you couldn’t give a fiddle about balanced compositions. We’ve never seen a Vanya like this—huge, ox-necked, shuddering like a dray horse from from burdens he’s pulled too long. Sanders's acting contains a level of detail that simply shouldn’t be visible without a camera to magnify it. There are moments when disappointment moves across his face so slowly you can still see the afterglow of previous joy there; you watch the happiness flickering, fighting to survive and then being doused by sorrow.
The only people onstage who come close to this titanic performance are Woods, a vivid and feeling actor, and DeVries, who can also render the pore-level naturalism that Nelson demands. But a central chunk of the play belongs to Astrov and Elena, who are less secure. Arias is a blank, and Pennington is perversely sleepy and sloppy; his shoulders droop down into his back pockets, and he shuffles around like a hippie that Vanya found crashing on his couch. But when Vanya comes back into frame, the final two acts accelerate into something truly great. Watching life snatch each illusion and hope away from this trusting man is as heartbreaking as watching a bear caught in an avalanche. Sanders won’t submit, though. He flushes, and shakes his huge head like an angry grizzly. His Vanya keeps roaring, even as the mountain comes down on top of him. The first offering from the new Hunter Theater Project, this Uncle Vanya costs just $37, and it offers a Chekhov performance beyond price.
Hunter College (Off Broadway). By Anton Chekhov. Translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Directed by Nelson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.