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A CurtainUp Review
Uncle Vanya

I was a shining light, who never shone on anybody
— Vanya, expressing his too late realization that he's hitched his life to an unworthy star— his late sister's pompous, untalented husband, Alexander Serebryakov.

I'm dying of boredom. I don't know what I'm to do— Elena, the pretentious professor's young wife who's devoted to him but, like everyone else thrown together on the Serebryakov estate is bored and unhappy.

What can we do? We must live out our lives.—Sonya's the selfish professor's uncomplaining, stoical daughter's advice to her angry and unhappy uncle.

Of course I've aged! All the life here is boring, stupid, squalid. It sucks you in. You're surrounded by misfits, nothing but misfits; you live with them for two or three years and gradually, imperceptibly, turn into a misfit yourself. — Astrov, another of the play's characters beaten down by the drama of life and the object of Sonya's love.


vanya
L-R: Jon DeVries (Alexander), Alice Canon (Marya), Yvonne Woods (Sonya), Jay O. Sanders (Vanya)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Unfolding as it does between July and September, Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya would also fit a title of The Summer of Of Our Discontent; to wit the above quotes by Vanya, Alexander Serebryakov's young wife wife Elena, his stoical daughter Sonya, and family friend Dr. Astrov during one of the longest ever on record.

Given the way the arrival of Sonya's father disrupts the estate's daily routines, even Marina, the nanny who now does the cooking, feels discombobulated and perturbed about the irregularly kept meal times. But cheer up. While an overriding sense of boredom and and failure afflicts all the characters, you won't be bored or happy with this latest of Uncle Vanya's many translations and interpretations that's launching Manhattan's newest theatrical venture, The Theater Hunter Project.

Whether you've seen Chekhov's tragi-comic masterpiece before or not, you won't be unhappy or bored with this smartly streamlined and staged production. Especially if you were a fan of Richard Nelson's socio-political trilogies about the Apple and Gabriel families at the Public Theater in 2013 and 2016 (Links to Curtainup's reviews).

Nelson is certainly due to tackle his version of Uncle Vanya. He co-translated major Chekhov works (The Seagull & The Cherry Orchard) with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. His event-specific plays about the Apples was deliberately intended to evoke the Chekhovian model. That's even though, unlike Chekhov's Prozhov sisters, the Apples loved their little town of Rhinebeck, New York. However, they too had their share of disappointments.

And so, as the Apple plays bore a strong kinship to Chekhov generally and The Three Sisters specifically, so this new Uncle Vanya now launching the Theater Hunter Project at Hunter College's Frederick Loewe Theater is very much in the mode of what started out as a single time-specific, ephemeral play but evolved into a surprisingly durable triptych that seeded three more Rhinebeck family plays.

The multiple scene locations usual for most Uncle Vanya productions have now been centralized into a single set, the kitchen of the estate. The only props — a long dining table, plus several small ones to hold dishes and food— are brought on stage by the actors who throughout the four intermissionless acts eat, drink, talk and philosophise much as the Apples and Gabriels did. In fact, when Jay O. Sanders, who I've now added to my memory book of terrific Vanyas, delivers his initial rant about his disillusion with his visiting brother-in-law while peeling an apple, it struck me as an amusing visual nod to his previous role as the Apple Sisters' brother.

While the translated dialogue is definitely contemporary it's not gratingly so but works well with the conversational line delivery. Trimming an hour from the usually close to 3-hour play does eliminate one minor character, Telegin. An inconsequential loss since the plot remains intact. Here, just in case you need a refresher:
Vanya has settled the dull life of managing the family estate to support his late sister's husband, Alexander Serebryakov's career as a noted professor and writer. The professor's daughter, Sonya (YvonneWoods) and her grandmother Marya (Alice Cannon) have also bought into Serebryakov's greatness.

But the summer visit of the aging professor (Jon De Vries, another regular in the Apple plays) has made Vanya painfully aware that he's wasted his life on a man of decidedly limited talent— but limitless selfishness.

The high maintenance visitor and his beautiful young wife Elena (Celeste Aria), set off passionate fireworks. That also applies to Doctor Astrov (Jesse Pennington, who in two early Nelson plays, Franny's Way & Rodney's Wife).

Though Astrov is, like Vanya, smitten with Elena, he is equally passionate about preserving the area's forests. That ecological passion adds a timely note to the overall play's timeless appeal to anyone who's ever wished they could restart their lives.
The series of financial and romantic upheavals prompted by the visit of the Professor and his wife afford the cast ample opportunities to capture the Checkovian nuances.

The two young women have a compelling scene of getting to know and like each other, though Elena's offer to speak to Astrov on Sonya's behalf is clearly doomed to go awry.

Despite being the cause for all the exploding tensions, Alexander Serebryakov actually has very little stage time; even less so here than in most translations. However, Jon De Vries impresses whenever he's on, most notably so in the devastating scene when his plan to sell the estate causes Vanya's emotional meltdown.

I was disappointed that the Professor's devoted mother-in-law Marya was now played by Alice Canon instead of the originally announced Roberta Maxwell, an actress I've always admired. However, it turned out that no matter who plays Marya, this is the one role that seems under-developed in this trimmed text.

Nelson once again proves himself to be one of the rare playwright adept at directing his own work. Under his helmsmanship capturing the play's comic as well as tragic elements is a certainly a group effort. But it's Jay O. Sanders who most potently expressed play's the overriding sense of agonized regret. And his ultimate outburst of rage around that kitchen table is a true punch to the gut.

Nelson's crafts team from the Apple and Gabriel plays have once again created an effective single set to support the sense of ordinary people pursuing their every day routines. Jason Ardizzone-West has reconfigured the theater's usual proscenium set-up to seat the audience all around so that every seat is prime. Thanks to Jennifer Tipton's lighting and Will Pickens' sound design dialogue does not get lost even when an audience member is looking at an actor's back. The contemporary flavor of the text is abetted by the unfussy, modern clothes in which costumers Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss have dressed the actors.

All this adds up to an experience that lives up to Theater Hunber Project's laudable mission — to make quality theater available at an affordable price (Tickets are $37, $15 for students).

For more about Anton Chekhov and links to his plays reviewed at Curtainup, see the Chekhov section of our Playwright's Album.





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PRODUCTION NOTES
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Directed and co-translated by Richard Nelson, along with Co-tranlators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Cast: Celeste Arias (Elena), Jon DeVries (Alexander), Kate Kearney-Patch (MarĂ­na), Alice Canon (Marya), Jesse Pennington (Mikhail), Jay O. Sanders (Vanya), Yvonne Woods (Sonya).
Scenic Design: Jason Ardizzone-West
Costumes:Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
Sound: Will Pickens
Production Stage Manager: Theresa Flanagan
Stage Manager: Jared Oberholtzer
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
Hunter Theater Project at the Frederick Loewe Theater, Hunter College E. 68th Street and Lexington Avenue
rom 9/07/18; opening 9/16/18; closing 10/28/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/12 press preview


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