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Lucy Komisar

"Uncle Vanya” at Lincoln Center turns Chekhov into soap opera

“Uncle Vanya”
Written by Heidi Schreck, directed by Lila Neugebauer. 
Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, NYC.  
https://www.lct.org/shows/uncle-vanya/ Runtime 2hrs20min.
Opened April 24, 2024.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar May 17, 2024.
Closes June 16, 2024.

Chekhov’s play was first produced in 1899 by the Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski. It has gone way downhill to Lincoln Center’s production.

Steve Carell as Vanya and Alison Pill as Sonia, photo Marc J. Franklin.

Jeidi Schreck’s adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” directed by Lila Neugebauer is soap opera leavened by slapstick. It evokes a sense of sadness, lives of quiet desperation, but no sense of Russia. The set’s picnic table laden with food and wine, backdrop of birch trees, makes it clear this is about the characters’ own desires (eating and drinking) but little about the land they inhabit.

The title character Vanya (Steve Carell) is erratic, overwhelmed by his sense of failure. Sometimes his voice is absurd, exaggerated, hokey to the point of ridiculous. His life has been blighted by his agreement to use the profits of the family farm to finance the life of his academic brother Alexander. He agrees with Alexander’s self-assessment that he is brilliant. He and Sonia (a very fine Alison Pill), the daughter of Alexander and his late wife, who works with Vanya, read aloud his articles.

Alfred Molina as Alexander and Anika Noni Rose as Elena, photo Marc J. Franklin.

But when Alexander (Alfred Molina, in a part beneath his talents) arrives with his new wife, because they are in financial straits, there is a shift. Elena as portrayed by Anika None Rose is tacky. (Rose is pretty bad in the role.) Her three gowns feature extreme decolletage, one is so tight she can hardly walk. Despite the hot dress, she is so cold that the prominent breasts must be what men see in her, what she wants them to see in her, how she got her husband. Elena is bored, not surprising since she claims she has not much to do.

And why did she marry Alexander? He loved success. So, she wanted to hook up with a successful guy. Is this the point of the female writer and director?

Vanya is distraught when Elena refuses to accept his protestations of love. He accuses her of finding him repulsive. Which should say something about his lack of a sense of reality. (What is he smoking?)

William Jackson Harper as Astrov and Anika Noni Rose as Elena, photo Marc J. Franklin.

Yes, he worked to make money to send Alexander, who he claims conned him. Turns out that all the men in the play feel sorry for themselves. It rains real water on stage and soaks Vanya. A bit overdone by director Neugebauer.

Astrov (a very fine William Jackson Harper), a doctor, is saving forests and planting new trees. He is another suitor, though he smartly calls Elena “a charming predator.” Still, he comes on to her. On exit, Elena throws a white coat on the floor, very Hollywood, and gives the doctor a passionate kiss. I liked the doctor’s clever aperçu: “Women and men are acquaintances, then lovers. Only after that, friends.” But he was only marginally smarter than Vanya.

William Jackson Harper as Astrov and Alison Pill as Sonia, photo Marc J. Franklin.

And, what about the other woman in the story. Sonia is shy, wholesome, talks about attitudes towards women, which doesn’t get much attention. She is secretly in love with Astrov. It would have been a good match, but Astrov like the other males in the story is too stupid.

Prof. Alexander is a fraud with a rep greater than his talents. He left the farm because he didn’t like pace of country life, “like you’ve fallen off the earth.” Now he wants to get money to invest in stocks and bonds by selling the estate that belongs to Sonia through her mother. Basically theft. Vanya had given up his share.

Suddenly reality drops. Vanya proclaims how he and Sonia worked for 30 years to support Alexander. They quoted him! The creepy Alex: “You’re a nothing, a nobody.” The distraught Vanya screams, “I wasted my life.” He fires a gun at Alex, but misses twice.

The play misses more than that. Vanya resumes his life and never ends the corrupt deal. A good adaptation dealing with modern sensibilities would have suggested why.

Visit Lucy’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com/


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