“Uncle Vanya” is a new take on a classic Chekhov play

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Steve Carell is sitting at a desk and Alison Pill is standing and leaning on Steve's shoulder
Uncle Vanya - Steve Carell and Alison Pill. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)
William Jackson Harper and Anika Noni Rose are holding each other.
Uncle Vanya – William Jackson Harper and Anika Noni Rose. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

Uncle Vanya by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is a classic of world theater. In this, as in his other three major plays — The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard — he paints a picture of upper-class life in Imperial Russia. It is a world of thwarted dreams and dashed expectations, of hidden longings and unspoken resentments. It is a world of people who are watching their old way of life fade away but do not have the will or desire to do anything about it.

Playwright Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) has turned her hand to make a new version of Uncle Vanya, one that attempts to lighten the genteel gloom with sharp humor. It is this version that Lincoln Center Theater has mounted with an all-star cast of Broadway luminaries and the Broadway debut of comic actor Steve Carell. This version of the play, unfortunately, is less than the sum of its parts.

The play takes place one sultry summer at the farm owned by the late first wife of Professor Alexander Serebriakov (Alfred Molina). Alexander and his much younger second wife, Elena (Anika Noni Rose) have come on an extended stay, disrupting the lives of his daughter Sonya (Allison Pill), his brother-in-law Vanya Voynitsky (Steve Carell), and his mother-in-law Maria (Jane Houdyshell). The visit also affects Dr. Mikhail Astrov (William Jackson Harper), the local physician; “Waffles” Telegin (Jonathan Hadary), a pockmarked former landowner who now lives with the Voynitskys; and the housekeeper and Sonya’s former nursemaid, Marina (Mia Katigbak).

The stunningly beautiful Elena attracts the romantic attentions of Vanya and Astrov, although she proclaims her faithfulness to her husband. Sonya harbors a desire for Astrov but sees herself as too plain to attract him. Maria fawns over her son-in-law to the neglect of her own son, who for two decades has run the farm that provides Alexander with the money he lives on, assisted in his relentlessly hard work by only his loving niece. 

Alexander coasts on his reputation as an intellectual to get his way without resistance. When he announces his plan to gain more money for himself — without considering what the cost would be for his daughter and his in-laws — long-held resentments and grievances come to light. 

Unfortunately, director Lila Neugebauer has allowed Steve Carell’s performance in the title role to run in two keys:  loud in the first act, and even louder in the second. Vanya’s second-act explosion at Alexander’s plan is less affecting since Vanya’s volume has been turned up to 11 in every prior appearance. 

The other actors seem to have been encouraged to give one-note performances — a huge waste of talent. Malina is the pompous pseudo-intellectual; Pill the scared, shy woman-child; Houdyshell the star-struck mother-in-law supporting all of Alexander’s pronouncements; Hadary the impoverished neighbor fading into the woodwork; Rose the attractive woman all too aware of her allure and all too willing to use it for her amusement. Only Harper’s doctor, with his interest in preserving the area forests and his sense of duty in serving his patients, seems to be unscathed by this.

It is also unfortunate that the size of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre’s stage works against this production. The upstage area, with a mural of a birch forest along the back wall, is mostly unused throughout the show’s first act, and is hidden behind what appears to be a dark-patterned papered wall in the second act. The furniture barely filling the Beaumont’s huge thrust stage is there only to give more of an idea of whether the actors are inside or outside. Regarding the costumes, they tend to give no sense of time or locale.

There were a few bright spots, however. Astrov’s seduction of the resistant Elena, resulting in a torrid kiss (which Vanya sees), displayed real chemistry on the parts of Harper and Rose. The musical talent of Spencer Donovan Jones, playing a character identified only as “Neighbor”, provided welcome violin interludes in each of the play’s two acts. And Katigbak’s sardonic delivery throughout was a constant delight.

I really wish this production of Uncle Vanya was worthy of the talent poured into it. Those who are fans of the actors will probably enjoy seeing them perform on a live stage. And Steve Carell has done fine dramatic work on film and TV; it’s a shame that, for whatever reason, he didn’t get a chance to show his acting chops in his Broadway debut. 

Uncle Vanya is presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York through June 16th, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to lct.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.