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‘Uncle Vanya’ Preserves Chekhov’s Hilarious, Dark, Tender Humanity for Today’s World

Steve Carell and Alison Pill in "Uncle Vanya" at Lincoln Center Theater.
Steve Carell and Alison Pill in "Uncle Vanya" at Lincoln Center Theater. By Courtesy of Marc J. Franklin
By Isabelle A. Lu, Crimson Staff Writer

The contemporary setting of Heidi Schreck’s translation of “Uncle Vanya” feels so natural that one could miss the change entirely. Even as the setting of a 19th century Russian estate is transformed into a modern one, Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of “Uncle Vanya” barely markets itself as a modernization, nor does it blatantly insert 21st century technology or slang. It is the soft flexibility of this adaptation, along with its elegant design and exceptional cast, that allows the strange, funny, and tragic humanity at the core of Anton Chekhov’s play to resonate anew today.

“Uncle Vanya” takes place in an isolated country estate tended by Vanya (Steve Carell) and his niece Sonia (Alison Pill) after the tumultuous arrival of Vanya’s ex-brother-in-law and Sonia’s father, Alexander (Alfred Molina), and Alexander’s glamorous second wife Elena (Anika Noni Rose). As both Vanya and the local doctor Astrov (William Jackson Harper) fall in love with Elena, the characters reckon with their unfulfilled lives.

Shreck is joined by director Lila Neugebauer as Broadway’s new “Uncle Vanya” quietly updates some language (“weirdos” in lieu of “eccentrics,” for example) and clothes its world in modern aesthetics. Astrov walks about in scrubs and hiking boots, Elena listens to a record player within a sophisticated sitting room, and Marina (Mia Katigbak) converses with the family in a grandmotherly muumuu. In employing these disparate yet recognizable styles, the designers of “Uncle Vanya” assemble a conglomerate of realistically different people, setting up the emotional resonance of various life experiences.

The star-studded cast powerfully delivers this portrait of life, embracing the strangeness and weight of their characters and their situations. Assisted by a wondrous summer downpour or the sound of early morning crickets as Vanya throws up middle fingers in an angry soliloquy or Sonia lays right down on the puddled floor, the performance expertly crafts the liminal feeling of solitude as a break from “actual,” tedious life — work and socialization — and coaxes forth the awkward yet endearing authenticity that emerges only then.

Enhancing this solitude is the bittersweet instrumental music performed by Waffles (Jonathan Hadary) and the neighbor (Spencer Donovan Jones) during scenic interludes, providing often simple melodies that simmer in the natural sounds of crickets, echoes, or owls to generate a rural world that has been detached from external chronological advancement. At the same time, the unclassifiable audioscape is as timeless as Chekhov’s story itself proves to be.

The production nails the precious moments shared by people too, with performances and blocking that grasp the tenderness arising between those who are mismatched — thrown together by place and time. As the unaccomplished Vanya dances wildly with the intellectual Astrov, or a youthfully overzealous Sonia grasps the poised Elena in a moment of bonding, one yearns to believe in the inherent goodness of all even as they gripe, suffer, or hurt one another.

No performance captures the tragicomic center of the play better than Steve Carell’s Vanya, who commands emotion with both his clownery and his frustration about what he has missed out on in life. Openly called “annoying” by Sonia, Carell’s screeching comedic delivery is unfailingly funny, sometimes cutting through the serious tone of a scene to remind one of the humor at the heart of Chekhov. Yet Vanya’s surface roughness elicits great sympathy when he begs for Elena’s love or delivers the explosive rant at the story’s climax; as he declares himself someone who might have been a “Schopenhauer” or “Dostoyevsky,” his plain, graying physicality offers a freshly crushing contrast by evoking the immobility experienced by today’s blue-collar workers.

Additionally notable are Harper, who manages to be both awkward and magnetic through his intelligent depth, and Pill, who beautifully handles the earnest Sonia. When Sonia breaks from her constant caretaking duties to express herself, Pill’s passion spurts from her through her motions, shoulders raised as if unused to sharing her opinions. When Pill curls up with a sort of giddy romantic despair, or penetrates the gloom of Astrov and Vanya with her kindness, her Sonia is not powerless but empowered by a capacity for love in a world that deeply lacks it.

Lincoln Center Theater’s cast and creative team preserves the psychological complexity of “Uncle Vanya” by balancing realism with strangeness and misery with humor. “Uncle Vanya” is the rare classic that has transitioned onto today’s Broadway stage with all its core humanity intact, and with its remarkable cast, it is utterly worth witnessing as an exercise in finding compassion and humor in a world still as dark as Chekhov left it.

“Uncle Vanya” runs at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont in New York through June 16.

—Staff writer Isabelle A. Lu can be reached at isabelle.lu@thecrimson.com.

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