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Broadway Reviews

Uncle Vanya

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 24, 2024

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. New version by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Lila Neugebauer. Set design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu & Elizabeth Harper. Sound design by Mikhail Fiksel & Beth Lake. Vocal coach Kate Wilson.
Cast: Mia Katigbak, William Jackson Harper, Steve Carell, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Hadary, Alison Pill, Anika Noni Rose, Jayne Houdyshell, and Spencer Donovan Jones.
Theater: Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street (Between Broadway and Amsterdam)

Steve Carell and Alison Pill
Photo by Marc C. Franklin
How do we categorize Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov's play about family life on an estate and working farm in late nineteenth century rural Russia? Is it a comedy, a melodrama, an excursion into absurdism à la Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot? The answer is, it can be fitted into any or all of these, and playwright Heidi Schreck's appealingly accessible adaptation at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre generously offers up all three.

Just because it's "old" and "Russian" doesn't mean a Chekhov play needs to be plodding. Indeed, his plays can easily speak to a contemporary audience. (If you happen to have seen a production of Aaron Posner's thoroughly delightful take on The Seagull, cheekily titled Stupid Fucking Bird, you'll know exactly what I mean). Chekhov for the masses!

Uncle Vanya is a play about life, which, in and of itself, makes it a comedy. So who better to play the title role than Steve Carell, who polished his offbeat comic chops during his six years as a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" followed by seven years on the off-tilt sitcom "The Office." His Vanya starts out as a whiny curmudgeon (think Larry David) and goes downhill from there as he sees his life of running his late sister's estate to be as unfulfilling as can be. Carell masterfully captures Vanya's kvetchiness, fed by restless ennui and too much vodka, and as the play slides into melancholic melodrama in the second act, so does he.

Vanya's current state has been triggered by a summer's long visit by his brother-in-law Alexander (Alfred Molina), a gout-ridden retired university professor who generally lives in the city, financially bolstered by income from the estate of his late wife, Vanya's sister. The self-important Alexander has arrived with his much younger second wife Elena (Anika Noni Rose), a beautiful woman we might think of in modern terms as a "trophy wife." She becomes an object of self-deluded love for both the neurasthenic Vanya and his friend and neighbor Astrov (William Jackson Harper, a charmer), the local doctor and a self-described conservationist who also is a heavy drinker, so much so that he frequently neglects his practice.

Alfred Molina and Anika Noni Rose
Photo by Marc C. Franklin
Rounding out the roster of main characters is Sonia (Alison Pill, giving a lovely, nuanced performance), the niece for whom Vanya is uncle and with whom she runs the estate. Where Vanya and Astrov create a fanciful notion of love for Elena (who has made her own choices in life), it is Sonia who most embodies Chekhov's recurring theme of love that is unrequited. Unlike the others, Sonia, who is in love with Astrov, is not looking for escape as much as she is looking for fulfillment, and the way in which her part in this story plays out is the touching heart of the production.

As to the melodrama, it comes to a head when Alexander announces his scheme to sell the property and invest the proceeds in order to bolster his regular income. That's the trigger that finally lights Vanya's fuse. The only thing worse than spending his life running the estate would be to lose it. It's at this point that the play could go in any one of several directions, and, unless you already know how it all winds up, it is likely to keep you in suspense as it plays out.

By the end, and with the departure of the disruptive guests, things have returned more or less to where they were at the start, the embodiment of the famous quote from Samuel Beckett: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." Both Chekhov and adaptor Heidi Schreck have provided everything we expect to see in a traditionally well-constructed play: exposition, conflict, climax, denouement, conclusion. There's some lovely stagecraft that makes excellent use of the deep performance area at the Vivian Beaumont, with additional support from the rest of the fine cast: Mia Katigbak as Marina and Jonathan Hadary as Waffles, both of whom work on the estate; and Jayne Houdyshell as Vanya's mother Maria.

This may not be the definitive Uncle Vanya, but Schreck's adaptation has nicely captured the spirit of play, just as Amy Herzog has done with Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People, also currently appearing on Broadway. Unless you are an absolute purist, I'd suggest you see both of these 19th century treasures that have been brought to life for a 21st century audience.