October 14, 1999
Uncle Vanya’ Hits Sour Note; ‘Amadeus’ in Perfect Harmony
No one ever said Anton Chekhov was an easy fit for American actors. In Chekhov, there may be scoundrels, but no villains; interesting, appealing women, but no heroine; a central figure perhaps, but flawed. Under the surface, it is the human condition that he unfolds for us.
In the present Americanized version of "Uncle Vanya" (an adaptation by Vanessa Burnham), we have everyone flattened out in a perverse kind of social realism. As with many of Chekhov's great plays, we are called upon to witness the dimming of a familiar world. Vanya and his niece, Sonya, have toiled in the provinces, running the family estate and sending the income to Vanya's elderly brother-in-law (Sonya's father), a university professor of art. Now, the professor, involuntarily retired, and his young wife, Yelena, have come to live in the provinces, creating great distress for Vanya and Sonya (among others), whose lives are consumed by the management of the estate.
There are delicious comic sequences, moments of sad absurdity and a sense of life proceeding on its irrevocable course. In Vanya, the characters are wonderful precisely because they are seen in the round -- ambiguous figures caught in a changing world that is as real as they are.
The problem with this production is that it is cast somewhat like a television drama -- all two-dimensional characters and little context. Sonya (Megan Follows), who toils away at the country estate and whose love for the country doctor, Astrov, is unrequited, is played (wrongly) as an ingenue. Her stepmother, Yelena (Christina Haag), the bored, empty beauty whose life is as wasted in the city she has left as are Vanya's and Sonya's and Astrov's in the provinces, is here presented as a Hollywood seductress (an error). Both women are miscast. All the emphasis is on character and motivation and none on the society that is passing by -- which is at the center of the play.
Vanya (Robert Foxworth, an excellent actor), defeated and depressed by his inability to accomplish anything, suddenly has supplanted Astrov as the play's chief intellectual, with more energy than any two other people in the cast. Meanwhile, Dr. Astrov (Stephen Pelinski) is the country doctor who drinks too much -- sort of like a Kennedy who has taken the wrong road and wound up in the provinces. The end effect is a pleasant enough TV program, but not Checkhov.
Michael Langham, a most gifted director who has probably put on more Checkhov plays than I have ever seen, brings his British expertise and his many years in the theater to our Western shores. Perhaps he was looking for novelty -- something new, say Chekhov with an American voice. Anyway, I hope that was his intention, because that is what he has achieved. It was a wrong choice.