Some productions of Chekhov's plays succeed in spite of themselves.
Such is the case with the Roundabout Theatre Company Uncle Vanya, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Here, in Mike Poulton's wonderfully articulate, stageworthy, and ingenious translation, we are given some of the best performances of this Broadway season alongside some of the most questionable. Oddly enough, the good almost seems to work with the bizarre to reinforce rather than diminish the themes of the play and the result is, if not dazzling, quite absorbing and definitely worth seeing.
The play tells the story of Vanya, hopelessly obsessed with his brother-in-law's young wife Yelena, and Vanya's niece Sonya, herself obsessed with the doctor Astrov, and their painful realization that the love they long for will forever be beyond their reach.
As Vanya, Derek Jacoby (he of I, Claudius and all those Cadfael mysteries) forgoes the lethargy usually associated with the role to give a mercurial but highly disciplined interpretation of barely contained tension, anguish, and ultimate disappointment. No less fascinating is Roger Rees, in a superbly paced and finely polished performance as the doctor Astrov, and Brian Murray, as the selfish and self-obsessed brother-in-law and pedantic scholar Serebryakov. Playing against these three gentlemen, Amy Ryan, as the niece Sonya, struggles but successfully manages to keep up to speed with a performance short on insight but long in almost-too-tragic despair.
The two disappointments of the evening are Laura Linney, lackluster and superficial as the supposedly enchanting Yelena, and the untenable lack of focus and direction by Michael Mayer.
Tony Walton's set and costumes are sumptuous and wonderfully atmospheric, and shown to best advantage by Kenneth Posner's heavily color-saturated lighting. The original music by David Van Tieghem is intoxicating.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, translated by Mike Poulton. Directed by Michael Mayer. Set and costume design by Tony Walton. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Starring Derek Jacobi, Laura Linney, Brian Murray and Roger Rees.
Theatre: Roundabout Theatre Company at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM
Ticket prices: $35 to $65
Tickets online: Ticketmaster
Tickets by phone: Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4100, or outside the New York metro area (800) 755-4000
Tickets in person: Box office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 5 PM