Friday, February 13, 2009

Uncle Vanya


By Anton Chekhov (translation by Carol Rocamora). Directed by Austin Pendleton. Classic Stage Company. (CLOSED)

"Lively" is the word most frequently used to describe Austin Pendleton's brisk new production of Chekhov's despairing masterpiece--and in a few cases it's meant as a compliment. Many critics, though, are decidedly mixed on the show's merits. While they duly note the celebrity couple of Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the big recurring themes covered in the reviews are Denis O'Hare's contemporary-styled performance in the title role (for many critics, a deal-breaker); Santo Loquasto's imposing set (they're split on whether it serves or obstructs the staging); and Mamie Gummer's breakout turn as Sonya (near-unanimous raves). A judgment call: Nothing personal against Malcolm Johnson of the Hartford Courant, but his review didn't seem grade-able.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Staged with bipolar intensity by Austin Pendleton...This is happily not a case of celebrity ego and middling ability. Pendleton gets his whole cast on the same page; their approach to Chekhov seems to be to squeeze the text (Carol Rocamora’s half-fluid, half-clunky translation) for every last drop of sweat, spit and tears...Pendleton doesn’t let anyone go halfway, and the result is wondrously rich and textured, some of the best American Chekhov in years.

Theatermania A-
(David Finkle) Austin Pendleton...has brought the much-produced work to startling life...With the sort of calculation that comes across as effortlessness, he's created an atmosphere in which boredom and restlessness are like an inebriating aperitif the characters drink from the ubiquitous samovar...The players give the collective impression that they're to the Chekhov manner (and country manor) born. O'Hare's towering, sometimes cowering performance in Vanya's tense skin ranks him first among equals. Unpredictable as a summer storm, he builds his gnawing despair expertly up to the famous missed gunshot scene, although he strikes a perhaps too subdued posture during the show's final scene. Gyllenhaal...shrewdly uses a light and sometimes nasal voice to establish the vapidity that Yelena combines with uneasy compassion. Sarsgaard, who was miscast earlier this season in Ian Rickson's Broadway production of The Seagull, redeems himself Chekhov-wise with an agitatedly sympathetic take on the dedicated (if alcoholic) doctor. Gummer -- her blonde hair pulled back tightly and mouth just as tight -- allows Sonya's emotions to rise like bubbles in boiling water.

Variety B+
(Marilyn Stasio) Austin Pendleton's helming is physically energetic and far less gloomy than the customary theatrical take, allowing a sterling ensemble to exercise its comedic chops on the scribe's complaining privileged classes. Among these 19th century whiners, Denis O'Hare's Vanya uses an arsenal of neurotic tics to convey his generation's lost dreams and hopeless aspirations. Although Santo Loquasto's two-story set is more eye-catching than practical, with its deliberately obtrusive central staircase and spatially divisive beams, it's a pleasure to follow the designer's visual invitation to wander its half-hidden nooks and crannies, trying to read book jackets and peek behind the couch cushions in Vanya's study.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) Director Austin Pendleton has enlivened a satisfactory, humor-garnished banquet of tragic Chekovian themes in the Classic Stage Company's new production: pointless hard work, despair, people struggling at cross-purposes, negative epiphanies of wasted lives replete with unrequited longing. Carol Rocamora's translation modernizes the language while retaining the period eloquence. Denis O'Hare's Vanya smolders with impotent, increasing rage...Gyllenhaal expresses the unhappy, rueful Yelena's boredom physically, restlessly roaming the stage and frequently drooping over any available furniture...Peter Sarsgaard is beguiling and boyishly charming as the imperfect, hardworking, alcoholic doctor and family friend, Mikhail Astrov...Among this mostly miserable group, Mamie Gummer's delightful Sonya stands out as a hummingbird of repressed energy and lovesick inner turmoil.

The Record B+
(Robert Feldberg) If Gyllenhaal brings them through the door, it's two other actors, though, who give the very lively production — directed by Austin Pendleton from a translation by Carol Rocamora — its emotional power. Chekhov's plays are so often mis-directed as slow and melancholy, with passive inhabitants of Russian country estates making polite conversation rather than say what they really feel, that it's startling to see one of his characters blow his top. That's exactly what Vanya, played with verve and restless energy by Denis O'Hare, does, in a production that could be subtitled "Chekhov, American-style"...An equally passionate performance that touches the heart perhaps even more is provided by Gummer...Sarsgaard's Astrov is considerably less interesting.

AM New York B+
(Matt Windman) At first glance, what separates “Uncle Vanya” from the recent productions of “Seagull” and “Cherry Orchard” is the intimacy of Classic Stage Company’s three-quarter stage. Here, audience members actually feel like they have entered a Russian country house and are just flies on the wall. But perhaps more important is the total lack of an English director’s pretentious footprints...Austin Pendleton, who is also an accomplished playwright, brings straightforward but nuanced clarity to the drama by focusing on its seething sadness and character complexities. Denis O’Hare brings a playful spirit to the typically morbid role of Uncle Vanya that works quite well. As Yelena, Maggie Gyllenhaal is convincingly restless and bored, desperately searching to find meaning in and escape from her new marriage to a professor more than twice her age. And just as he did in “Seagull,” Peter Sarsgaard brings a cool, reflective spirit to country doctor Astrov. But the real surprise of this production may just be Mamie Gummer.

Edge NY B+
(Ellen Wernecke) With all eyes on the celebrity pair, they do an admirable job of not betraying themselves as more than what they are in the context of the play...But even with their collective wattage the night belongs to two of their costars even more. Denis O’Hare’s loose, natural and uncompromising portrayal of Vanya facing his wasted life soars above anything else going on onstage...Along with Gummer, no stranger to high expectations on the local stage, O’Hare is heartbreaking as Vanya and Sofya face the rest of their lives, him with a resignation, and her with a little bit of hope.

NY1 B+
(Roma Torre) Good but uneven production featuring an outstanding performance by Denis O'Hare...Pendleton's naturalistic approach along with Carol Rocamora's vibrant translation puts the 1899 masterpiece in a fresh new light. Somewhat less successful is Santo Loquasto's cluttered 2-tiered set featuring a line of towering beams diagonally intersecting the stage...The central performances are strong...While flawed, this production starts rather slowly, but it nicely manages to brush years of dust from the century-old classic, creating a Vanya that balances Chekhov's light and dark with remarkable relevance. B
(Ivanna Cullinan) A very engaging production. Forthrightly Vanya-centric, it is briskly paced and features largely active characterizations that avoid the emotional wallowing and "now you will feel the pain of all that is Mother Russia" so common to Chekhov productions...It is deft and smart and wastes no time; I was truly surprised when I checked my watch at the end of the night. While this show certainly could benefit from slightly higher or at least more discernible emotional stakes, the speed and lightness of this production triumphs and makes for a delightful Chekhovian experience...Denis O' a strong and eccentric performance, well worth seeing...Maggie Gyllenhaal, an actress of skill, is simply not well used here and seems to lack guidance...There is a sense of life continuing that has been built by the largely thoughtful and probing direction of Austin Pendleton.

Total Theater B
(Richmond Shepherd) Director Austin Pendleton has given us a soft, slow, naturalistic version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya...The cast communicates well, including a layered, moving performance by Mamie Gummer as the yearning Sofya and a believable Peter Sarsgaard as the doctor. The theater lights up when Maggie Gyllenhaal, Denis O’Hare and the antique George Morfogen take stage. Fighting the director’s intention to be real is the intrusive, overbearing, monstrous two-level set by the usually brilliant designer, Santo Loquasto. Poles block view of the action cause us to lose communication with moments of the play and crane our necks to see. Sorry, the play is not about the set...Of course you should see it -- it’s an intriguing conception of the classic play, and mostly, Pendleton’s languid vision and the fine acting keep us fully engaged.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) Flawed but often vibrant and intimate...Designer Santo Loquasto has bunched the worn, wooden rooms into at least five separate playing areas, a fascinating idea that allows us to overhear the whispers and yearnings in all the cozy corners. If the production never quite comes together - and unfortunately it does not - the problem comes down to Denis O'Hare's crazed but not vulnerable Vanya. This Vanya is so busy raging and being sarcastic - and, once, literally chewing the pillar in obsessive love and disillusionment - that we stop caring that he wasted his life on meaningless work. Things get silly, instead of foolish, finally dwindling into a meaner kind of emptiness than Chekhov, the clear-eyed humanist, demands. Still, there are many pleasures in this engaging, thoughtful staging, including Peter Sarsgaard (Gyllenhaal's real-life love and fellow indie star) as Astrov...Gyllenhaal, in her first major role on the New York stage, is seriously delightful as Yelena.

CurtainUp B-
(Elyse Sommer) Denis O'Hare's extremely idiosyncratic performance is intriguing even if it at times pushes the comedic envelope a bit too hard...Unfortunately, some of Rocamora's finely tuned text falls victim to director Austin Pendleton's frequently positioning the actors without any regard for the audience and encouraging a too conversational tone. Pendleton knows his Chekhov expert [sic?], having himself played Vanya, but his direction is at times as inconsiderate of the audience as the egotistical Professor's demands for tea and sympathy in the middle of the night...Maggie Gyllenhaal not only looks stunning in Suzi Benzinger's costumes but plays Yelena with exquisite ennui. She also delivers her lines with admirable clarity. Peter Saarskard's [sic] Astrov may not look like a man who's aged visibly and is teetering on the brink of alcoholism, but somehow his being trim and quite attractive, makes Yelena's and Sofya's attraction to him most convincing...Pendleton's major failure as the play's helmer is that he hasn't guided Mamie Gummer to project her voice.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) 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...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...O’Hare is so jittery throughout, all ADHD mumbling and mugging, there’s no reason to believe this outburst is different from any other...This production is performed in an excellent translation (by Carol Rocamora) that dispenses with any hint of brooding filigree, and is directed by Pendleton with an energetic fluidity that mires no one in its wake. But Santo Loquasto’s set, a hefty framework of a house that makes all the indoor and outdoor areas of the professor’s estate simultaneously visible, offers a richer sense of forward motion that does O’Hare, even though it moves no more than Vanya himself does.

American Theatre Web C+
(Andy Propst) There's a marvelous rabbit warren-like visual to the design, but there come times when, no matter where one is sitting, one's straining to see the actors. Theatergoers may find that there's an additional strain put on their necks – a sort of whiplash – during this uneven staging from Austin Pendleton: individual performances vacillate, from the sublime to the wooden, often within the blink of an eye...Pendleton's production, which uses a simple and colloquial new translation from Carol Rocamora, deftly captures the sense of life on the estate and the effect that these characters have on one another in cramped quarters...It's acting that's the stuff of both magic and stuffiness. Only Gummer, seen in several other NYC productions of late, and daughter of actress Meryl Streep, delivers consistently.

Just Shows To Go You C+
(Patrick Lee) Radiant, captivating, and in full command of the stage, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a vibrant and beguiling Yelena in the current production (at CSC) of this Chekhov classic. Unfortunately, hers is the only performance of the leading four that satisfies, a pity considering the production is judiciously paced (under Austin Pendleton’s direction) and - except for a scenic design that makes sightlines problematic from the theatre’s side seats - well considered. Denis O’Hare’s jangly, excitable take on Vanya isn’t invalid, but it finally lacks gravity: we aren’t made to deeply feel the character’s sense of futility or loss. Peter Sarsgaard’s character choices render Astrov overly neurotic and off-putting. I rarely saw more than the machinations of technique in Mamie Gummer’s performance as Sonya: she does much to convey the character’s anguish - the red eyes, the tears, the catch in the voice - but I didn’t believe any of it.

Backstage C+
(David Sheward) This Vanya and his unhappy friends and family are an active bunch...While this is a relief from the usual languid staging, Pendleton and his players too often go too far in the opposite direction....Despite the choice to play it over the top, O'Hare imbues Vanya with vibrancy and pathos. As Astrov, the dissolute doctor also smitten with Yelena, Peter Sarsgaard takes the opposite route, underplaying the role to the point of indifference...But the most startling revelation is Mamie Gummer as Sonya, Vanya's plain niece. This fine young actor has made several strong impressions in seasons past, but here she steps out of the shadow of her mother, Meryl Streep, to create a complex, infinitely shaded portrait of a closed-off life.

Wall Street Journal C
(Terry Teachout) A flawed enterprise whose defects arise from what I assume to be a specifically directorial decision: The acting is jarringly contemporary, the décor unabashedly traditional. Denis O'Hare's flip, whiny Vanya could have stepped straight off the set of a Woody Allen movie, while Peter Sarsgaard's blasé Astrov sounds like John Malkovich. Austin Pendleton, the director, is a gifted artist (he wrote "Orson's Shadow") who knows his Chekhov, but I can't see how the performances that he's drawn from his equally gifted cast are supposed to hook up with Santo Loquasto's old-fashioned country-house set and Suzy Benzinger's prerevolutionary costumes...The good news is twofold: (1) Maggie Gyllenhaal's slinky, seductive Yelena is an anachronistic joy to behold. (2) Mamie Gummer, who plays the lovesick Sonya, is heart-stoppingly intense. Hers is the only performance in this "Vanya" that would make as much sense in a more conventional production, and it adds to my fast-growing conviction that Ms. Gummer is one of the most exciting young stage actresses in town.

New York C
(Scott Brown) The actors...find little in the way of solid purchase for their characters’ pain—their flourishes feel like flourishes, their characterizations slip their gears—and this, I suspect, is not Vanya but Pendleton. He’s given his performers plenty of room, and a sizable jungle gym to play in. What he seems not to have given them is direction, in the most primitive sense of the word. The blocking is loose, the sightlines refracted by the busy set—sit in a different seat and you’ll see a different show...No one’s floundering, exactly, but everyone’s obviously fishing: There’s a lot of bubbly, unmotivated laughter, and lot of frustrated vocalizing. Yes, the ache of life is keenly felt, and no one’s expecting a cure—but would it be too terribly much to show us where it hurts and how much? This is Chekhov with fibromyalgia: An exquisite suite of symptoms radiating from nowhere, culminating in little...This is the sort of production that will probably improve exponentially over the course of its run.

Lighting and Sound America C
(David Barbour) I struggled to make sense of Santo Loquasto's setting, a towering, two-level structure that contains all of the play's locations in one unit design...It also provides the director, Austin Pendleton, with something of an obstacle course. Time and again, actors disappear behind a beam or a furniture arrangement; audiences sitting on the left or right of the theatre's three-sided configuration must strain to see what is happening across a crowded stage. The devastating final scene should bring us close to Vanya and Sofya; instead, it begins upstairs, with us craning our necks to see the actors. Finally, Pendleton is forced to pull them downstairs for the closing lines. There's also a strange lack of internal consistency to the staging...It seems part and parcel of the director's rather indulgent approach, in which actors and scenes suddenly shift into sharp focus, only to wander off again. This results in a production that varies considerably from actor to actor, and scene to scene...There's plenty of good work here, but, somehow it never quite adds up to a potent, coherent vision of the play.

New Yorker C
Denis O’Hare’s Vanya seems less like a lovesick widower than a squirrelly, callow college student...The set, by Santo Loquasto, is gorgeously rough-hewn, and highlights of the talented cast include Peter Sarsgaard, who sustains a mysterious air as the country doctor who is too smart for his surroundings, and Gummer, whose movingly fretful Sonya pines so deeply for the doctor. But their performances don’t match up with those of O’Hare and Gyllenhaal, whose casual American-style sarcasm and flirting never really lead to sufficiently Chekhovian tragic depths.

New York Post C-
(Frank Scheck) The revelation of this Mamie Gummer. As the lovesick Sonya...delivers a performance of...heartbreaking intensity...Unfortunately, none of the other performers rises to a similar level. Chekhov's brilliant blending of pathos and comedy is fiendishly difficult to execute, and in this uneven rendition - as is sadly the case with most productions - the results are mixed, at best. Director Austin Pendleton is a Chekhov veteran, having directed the play and starred in the title role several times previously, but his handling of the actors is curiously adrift.

Show Showdown C-
(Cameron Kelsall) The production itself is attractive and fluid, but suffers from crucial casting errors in several key roles. Both Denis O'Hare and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Vanya and Yelena Andreevna respectively, are far too contemporary for such a traditional staging...Peter Sarsgaard, the weakest link of the aforementioned Seagull, fares slightly better here as the frustrated Dr. Astrov, but I believed neither his passion for Yelena nor his neutrality towards the plain Sonya (Mamie Gummer, in the first winning performance I've seen her deliver). In the end, it's a shame that Pendleton (a former CSC Vanya himself, in the late eighties) has to waste a generally winning mise-en-scene on such a disparate and defective group of actors.

Bloomberg News D+
(John Simon) Proves yet again that the presence of big stage and screen stars doesn’t assure a classic’s success. This “Vanya” like a noble oak chopped up into firewood. The three stars are the biggest deficit. Gyllenhaal is a winning movie actress, but her film roles have not prepared her for playing the beautiful, bored Yelena...Her real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard, at home in contemporary Hollywood roles, is an uneasy squatter in the part of Dr. Astrov...The supreme disaster, though, is Denis O’Hare’s Vanya, all cutesy mannerisms, smudging affectations and overwhelming effeteness. All is artifice, posturing, self-satisfied exaggeration, whether vocal pyrotechnics or gestural extravagance, without an ounce of simple sincerity. He plays not good-but-troubled Vanya, but rather a miscast actor enacting a misguided concept...Under the usually able Austin Pendleton’s uncharacteristically fussy direction, the actors do a lot of busy little things. Nevertheless, they are unable to come up with a coherent overall characterization, let alone blend into a unified ensemble.

The Daily News D+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Star-studded but rudderless...It lacks tension, humor and crisp characterizations while slogging along on a hulking set (an atypical misfire by Santo Loquasto) for 2½ hours...Sarsgaard does a credible job as the doctor. Gyllenhaal, who was so dynamic as a druggie in the film "Sherrybaby," plays Yelena with a slow-mo saunter and monotonous pasted-on smile that makes it seem as if she's been in Sherry's stash. O'Hare gives measured performances in "Milk" and TV's "Brothers & Sisters," but gets overly indulgent and abandons punctuation as Vanya...A laser-focused Gummer on the other hand gives the best performance and is a tremendously affecting as the sensitive and, finally, resigned Sonya.

New York Observer D+
(John Heilpern) We’ve all seen actors chew the scenery from time to time. It goes with the territory. But how many of us can claim to have seen an actor actually gnaw on a set? My thanks to the Tony Award–winning Denis O’Hare for providing a first in my theatergoing lifetime...While there’s no weirder symbol of Austin Pendleton’s hyperactive, utterly un-Chekhovian production of Uncle Vanya than Mr. O’Hare sinking his teeth into the woodwork, the set design by the usually excellent Mr. Loquasto is an expensive blunder...I’ve never seen a weepier Uncle Vanya than this one. (Isn’t the golden acting rule to let the audience do the weeping?)...With one outstanding exception (Mamie Gummer’s delightful Sonya), everyone in Mr. Pendleton’s wayward production is melodramatically out of sync.

Village Voice D+
(Alexis Soloski) Singularly lax...Pendleton has directed these "scenes of a country life" many times and acted the title role as often. Perhaps he couldn't summon the interest to do it again...Disregarding the internal rhythms of the acts, he lets some scenes unfurl at a jolly trot and others at a lugubrious crawl. He stages certain moments with great specificity and others with lassitude and haze. Significantly, he neglected to inform designer Santo Loquasto that his attractive two-tiered set—a loft with ample supporting beams—doesn't work in the CSC space.

Theater News Online D+
(Bernard Carragher) Only scratches the surface of this great work...This Uncle Vanya often seems to be at cross purposes and only comes alive in the climatic act two. One of its main problems is Mr. Pendleton's choice to use a translation by the Russian scholar Carol Rocamora rather than an adaptation...By providing only a literal translation by Ms. Racamora, Mr. Pendleton not only undercuts much of the play's drama and theatricality, but also sacrifices Chekhov's wonderful ironies. The play's set designer hasn't helped much either...Mr. O'Hare gets most of Vanya on stage, his performance is more honest and more competent - especially in manifesting the pathetically comic side of the character - than anyone else in the production which suffers from a lack of an ensemble cohesion.

The New York Times D
(Ben Brantley) You might argue that an agitated indecisiveness suits the plays of Chekhov, in which people trapped in the provinces are itching to escape their dull lives. In this case, though, the sensation that everything’s up in the air — and unlikely to fall into place before the final curtain — is generated less by the restless ambivalence of Chekhov’s characters than by the jittery performances of the undeniably gifted actors playing them. You start to think how differently things might have turned out for the discontented denizens of this great comic drama had Ritalin been available in Czarist Russia...I can understand the reasoning behind Mr. Pendleton’s attack on the play. He’s trying to shake the stiffness and stasis out of a classic and to loosen his cast out of brooding poses...But the impression here is less of people running after elusive dreams than of actors running after elusive roles. You’re always conscious of the scrabbling sound of performers digging deep into their psyches in search of buried emotions, as if you were sitting in on a session at the Actors Studio. Everyone still seems to be trying on insights for size.

TONY A 13; Theatermania A- 12; Variety B+ 11; Associated Press B+ 11; The Record B+ 11; AM New York B+ 11; EDGENy B+ 11; NY1 B+ 11; B 10; Total Theatre B 10; Newsday B- 9; CurtainUp B- 9; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; American Theatre Web C+ 8; Just Shows To Go You C+ 8; Backstage C+ 8; Wall Street Journal C 7; New York C 7; L&SA C 7; New Yorker C 7; New York Post C- 6; Show Showdown C- 6; Bloomberg News D+ 5; Theatre News Online D+ 5; The Daily News D+ 5; NY Observer D+ 5; Village Voice D+ 5; The New York Times D 4; 233/28=8.32 (C+)

1 comment:

Aaron Riccio said...

I dunno, I'd follow through and make that something personal.