“There’s really no excuse for being bored,” snips Sonya, rather dangerously, about two hours into the Roundabout Theater Co.’s new production of “Uncle Vanya.” A single thought may almost be heard skittering through the heads of the audience: Wanna bet, girlfriend?
There’s a lot of talk in Michael Mayer’s woebegone production of the Chekhov classic, and much loud declaiming. There are quite a few tears and other assorted hysterics, a half a barrel of laughs, and a heap of acting with a capital A. But in nearly three hours of stage time there’s nary a drop of authentic feeling. And since Chekhov without feeling is Chekhov without meaning, interest or point, what we have here is three hours of dead air.
Mayer is a favored director at the Roundabout, where he has received acclaim for his fine productions of “Side Man” and “A View From the Bridge.” But his brash and colorful style seemed a risky choice for Chekhov, and indeed the pairing proves unfortunate. The director and his A-list cast — which the most experienced Chekhov director might have trouble shaping into a cohesive whole — are utterly at sea amid the subtle graces and muted emotional palette of the playwright. The play is performed as if it were some strange amalgam of Shaw, Shakespeare and a standard-issue 19th century melodrama.
Topping that A-list is Derek Jacobi, who plays the title role, and whose interest in playing Vanya in New York was likely the impetus for the production. Jacobi is, of course, a brilliant actor with a long and distinguished list of credits, but he is a brilliant actor of a specific type (as indeed all brilliant actors are): He’s excelled particularly in Shakespeare, where language is the key to character and characters rise to histrionic heights on the wings of words. This Jacobi can do beautifully. But this is not required in Chekhov — Chekhov’s poetry is not in his words but in the feeling behind them, in the characters’ softly yearning souls themselves. (This is one reason why his plays translate so easily and so widely.) Jacobi’s Vanya, like most of the other portraits here, is soulless: all angry, pouting, screeching surface, with no believable subtext underneath. It’s a sadly hammy and hollow performance.
But then it’s hard to decide who among the cast’s impressive roster of talents is most ineffectual here. Roger Rees, like Jacobi, is a talented actor in the classic English tradition, and as Astrov, the disappointed country doctor, he gives a classic English performance, replete with significant pauses, impassioned outbursts and the occasional toss of the head. He, too, speaks the lines of Mike Poulton’s rather windy and ever-so-English-sounding translation as if they were beautiful poetry, which would be fine if the emotion behind the words were registering meaningfully. But it isn’t — neither Astrov’s ardent love for Yelena, the pretty young wife of the pompous Serebryakov, nor his passion for the endangered Russian forests is communicated with conviction.
As Yelena, the object of both Astrov and Vanya’s adoration, Laura Linney certainly looks resplendent in Tony Walton’s plush Russian gowns, but her performance is too stiff, supercilious and stagy. Indeed Chekhov’s wonderful naturalism, his studious refusal to be seen manipulating his characters for dramatic effect, is bizarrely tossed out the window in this production, in which the characters often deliver their ruminative monologues directly at the audience, and seem to fuss and fume and cry with an eye toward theatrical effect.
Perhaps because they so strenuously beg for our sympathy, the performers in this production never earn it. The beneficent charity with which Chekhov observed all his characters, and which the audience should be made to share, never comes into play here. The endless lamentations over boredom and stifled lives merely comes across as shrill selfishness and tiresome whining, and only the rather too self-conscious and starchy punch lines in Poulton’s translation hit their marks. (Perhaps because he is playing Serebryakov, the play’s most unsympathetic character, Brian Murray fares best, although his robustly funny performance is hardly subtle.)
None of the quiet emotional connections in this tender web of a play are drawn competently — this group of people who should seem to have lived together for an eternity scarcely seem to know one another, let alone share unspoken and unbreakable bonds. Even the deep affection between Vanya and his niece Sonya, the only love equation in the play that is an equal one, fails to register. (Amy Ryan’s fatally untender Sonya may be part of the problem — with her dark hair in a severe bun and a constant scowl on her face, she’s more like some young Russian variant on Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers.)
It’s a measure of the production’s total ineffectiveness that Sonya’s famous last speech, in which she speaks of renouncing all hope of happiness and urges Vanya to join her in soldiering on through a bleak future, is met with titters rather than tears. But then maybe it was merely that line about “evening after endless evening,” hardly the first time this production inspires not an anguished, sympathetic hush but a sarcastic retort.