It’s never good to wonder if perhaps you accidentally walked in on a show still in rehearsal. Sound cues are missed, lines get flubbed, and most importantly the actors don’t seem to understand where they fit into the plot yet. Considering the material is Chekhov, though, makes the speculation even more worrisome. Uncle Vanya at the 78th Street Theatre Lab is such an occurrence, and - last-minute cast replacement notwithstanding - makes me question why this bland and entirely unoriginal take on a classic was even attempted at all.
Pick up any Cliffs Notes or other such study aide and you will find the basic plot of Uncle Vanya effortlessly sketched out for you. Professor Serebryankov and his young second wife Yelena leave the bustling metropolis of St. Petersburg and invade his deceased first wife’s country family estate. Currently inhabited and managed by the Professor’s daughter, Sonya (from the first marriage) and her Uncle Vanya (among other interesting workers), the estate has been essentially supporting the Professor for years and is now thrown into utter disarray by his arrival and general disturbance. Enter suave local doctor Astrov and suddenly everyone is ensconced in triangles of unrequited passion and longing. Being Chekhov, however, frustration and inertia remain the rules of the game, and so consequently no one is satisfied by the play’s conclusion.
Especially the audience. I cannot say for certain whether the blame lies undeniably with the production’s direction or with its concept, but either way it results in a solid two-and-a-half hours of disoriented, monotoned emoting. Both translated and directed by Arnold Shvetsov, this Uncle Vanya gives the impression of existing primarily as a vanity production. Shvetsov’s translation is adequate, but appears as if considerably more effort went into putting pen to paper than placing actor to stage. There is a blind spot covering the production, leading the majority of Chekhov’s wry jokes to be left buried, the characters’ relationships to remain little more than cursory, and the dramatic events akin to simply a bad day.
The disjointed, unfocused aura also extends liberally to the performances. As the title character, Peter Von Berg operates with only two modes of characterization: “jump and shout” and “sit and grumble.” It is not until the show’s absolute final moment that he lets us really see the suffering he has endured throughout his cold, lonely life, but by no means should we have to wait that long for gratification. Sonya isn’t treated much better, for Natia Dune retreats so far into Sonya’s shyness that it’s nearly impossible to view her as a maturing woman - or even hear her lines from time to time. Physically, Aleks Shaklin discovers flashes of Astrov’s magnetism, but vocally jars with his inconsistent Brooklyn/European dialect. It is far easier to imagine this Astrov slinging pizza pies in the corner store than traveling grandly around the Russian countryside.
There are many reasons for attempting to mount a classic play, some of which might include focusing on a certain theme from the script, updating a certain aspect, or simply paying homage to how it was originally performed. With each new production a new angle should be revealed, but in this case most of the original charm, intelligence, and tension of Chekhov’s play is all but lost amid amateurish concentration. This Uncle Vanya seems new, but for all the wrong reasons.