The pity is that with Tom Courtenay in the title role — his first Broadway appearance since “The Dresser” in 1981 — Circle in the Square has the makings of a fine “Vanya.” Courtenay, at least in the first three acts, movingly conveys the supine dissipation of a man who has devoted his life’s labor to the support of his brother-in-law, Serebryakov (Werner Kl-emperer), who he has only recently come to realize is not an intellectual paragon but a third-rate academic and something of a fraud. Courtenay capably plumbs the depths of ssadness and humiliation Vanya feels as he falls under the spell of Serebryakov’s alluring new wife, Yelena (Amanda Donohoe). But the performance, indeed the whole production, falls apart in Vanya’s fourth-act confrontation with Serebryakov and the smaller series of tantrums that follow, which ultimately seem closer to the conclusion of “Rumpelstiltskin” than to what is arguably Chekhov’s bleakest comedy.
And by that time, everything else about the production has long since gone awry, from the miscasting of every other major role to Braham Murray’s generic staging and Loren Sherman’s equally vacant design.
Reviewing a National Theater production of the play 30 years ago — with Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Rosemary Harris, no less — Harold Clurman complained that “mannerism often takes the place of mood” and that the “stylized plain wood setting . . . suggests hardly any place either actual or symbolic, only a kind of literal dead end, wholly juiceless. The loneliness and ennui of Chekhov’s world may be stultifying, but they are never dry.” How aptly those words fit here.
As Astrov — the doctor and incipient conservationist whose bristling creativity (he could be an escapee from Shaw) makes him irresistible even to Yelena — James Fox is a stiff, trundling around the Circle arena like a lost [7m bwana[22;27m in search of the hunting party. Where passion is required, as when Astrov describes the forests’ defoliation, Fox is egregious, a prattling bore.
Donohoe, enjoying kudos for her role as a put-upon lady-in-waiting in the film “The Madness of King George,” plays Yelena as coy and smug; when Astrov describes her swaying sensuousness, we look in vain for any sign of it.
Klemperer’s idea of conveying Serebryakov’s tyrannical mediocrity is to play him as a hypochondriacal buffoon, while Kate Skinner’s Sonya isn’t even in the modest league represented here.
Obviously constrained by the Circle’s full arena space, Sherman has provided the sparest of settings; the only impression that lasts is of the raw planked flooring, and it’s not good. Neither is Murray’s perfunctory staging, though it , too, is handcuffed by the space.
Who gets it right? Tharon Musser, whose lighting scheme, with its evening yellows seeping into morning brightness, does more to salvage the tone of the play than anything going on onstage, and Mimi Maxmen, whose costumes are fine.
But this “Vanya” never draws us in, and it pales before the most significant version of our time, Andre Gregory’s utterly engrossing “Vanya on 42nd Street,” adapted for film by Louis Malle and starring Wallace Shawn in the title role and Larry Pine as Astrov.
For anyone who grew up accepting Chekhov’s greatness as an act of faith for want of ever having actually seen a production seething with life, “Vanya on 42 nd Street” is the real thing. “Vanya” on 50th Street, on the other hand, is stock goods.