If Ivan Petrovich - or Uncle Vanya, as he’s more commonly known - can't sparkle within his dullness in Classic Stage Company’s mostly glowing new production of the play that bears his name, at least his problem is not a universal one. As respectively embodied by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Mamie Gummer, the professor’s new wife Yelena and Vanya’s niece Sofya radiate with multihued emotions and conflictions in ways that Vanya, played by Denis O’Hare, does not.
One would expect a more level playing field with such solid anchoring actors and a director (Austin Pendleton) who has made his own acclaimed excursions as an actor into Anton Chekhov’s exploration of personal desolation - and who displays here a keen understanding of the work’s vivid and volatile life. But that never quite comes. While Gyllenhaal and Gummer make some thrillingly individual acting choices to outline their characters’ despair, they don’t find the equivalent they need in Vanya’s central, dispirited figure.
That’s because O’Hare isn’t playing Vanya. He’s playing Mason Marzac in Take Me Out, Charles Guiteau in Assassins, Oscar Lindquist in Sweet Charity, and E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind. True, many of O’Hare’s previous roles are on some level the same kind of character: neurotic or nearly-there excitables who see the world spinning without them and are determined to whimper out “No.” And this is Vanya, too, to an extent, as he’s seeing his life as increasingly worthless, professionally and personally.
He’s primed to crack when he sees Yelena kiss the visiting doctor Astrov (Peter Sarsgaard) and to shatter completely when the professor (George Morfogen) proposes selling the house so he and Yelena may decamp to Finland. It’s enough to drive anyone over the edge, and this moment should be the climax of Vanya’s current situation as well as his whole life. But except for slightly more paper-tearing and somewhat more intensely throbbing veins in his neck, Vanya isn’t that much different here than he is in any of his other whining speeches.
You should feel decades past and present collapse in around the 47-year-old never-was as he unleashes his aggressions on the symbol of everything he’s squandered. But O’Hare is so jittery throughout, all ADHD mumbling and mugging, there’s no reason to believe this outburst is different from any other. Without his progression from edge-toeing milquetoast to prisoner of his own unrealized ambitions, Uncle Vanya loses its most poignant tether to reality, its loudest and clearest warning about avoiding the life unlived.
Its absence in Vanya is exacerbated by the way it floods the other characters. You should see it most in the professor and Astrov, though Morfogen and Sarsgaard only intermittently tap into it, moving in fits and starts through the swamps of depression that border the dying land on which the estate is located. But Cyrilla Baer is right on target as the estate’s maid, warmly showing her acute, if useless, understanding of the passage of time. Delphi Harrington makes Vanya’s mother a stately, silently stirring reminder of what can happen when you relinquish control of your life.
This is most succinctly visible in Gyllenhaal’s magnetic Yelena, a vision, yes, but also a cipher of devastating strength. She’s borne on a tide of astonishingly active idleness that highlights her own unwilling inertia as a result of falling out of love with the professor. She masks her turmoil with her exquisite outer beauty, capped by that multimillion-ruble smile, but both can barely cover her uncertainty about the paths her choices have left for her. Her games with men - Astrov, Vanya, her husband, it doesn’t matter - may occasionally be cruel, but they’re all she has. Gyllenhaal’s Yelena is trapped in the present, but lost in the present and the future, a victim of the unsteady hope that things might someday improve.
For Sofya, however, there is no such luxury. She has completely wrapped her life up in Astrov, who barely notices she exists, and Gummer plays the young woman’s evolution expertly. So sprightly at first, quick with a harsh word for Vanya but ultimately optimistic about what tomorrow holds, she’s transformed by the play’s end into the human embodiment of desiccation, unable to envision ever blooming, and as destined for nothingness as her uncle. There are times she stands, bathed in Jason Lyons’s early-evening lighting, that Gummer perfectly resembles her mother, Meryl Streep. The different aspects she finds of Sofya’s angst - innocent, sexual, all-consuming - suggest, more than any of her previous roles, that she inherited more than just looks from her mother.
So compelling is she, especially when standing among the ruins of so many lives in the final act, you might find yourself forgetting the play isn’t all about her. But she takes ownership of her role’s unique demands in a way that the billed Uncle Vanya does not. The way he melts into the background, becoming the obscurity he claims he’s attained in all the wrong ways, you feel as though he’s truly ceding the point that this production should instead be called Niece Sofya. If few of his actions allow for the most meaningful and moving Uncle Vanya ever, that tacit admission is something O’Hare does unquestionably right.