If the eco-medic Astroff in “Uncle Vanya” makes you think of Al Gore, Yelena’s ennui brings to mind Paris Hilton and the decaying Russian homestead conjures thoughts of a Beckett landscape, that just goes to underscore the universal relevance of Anton Chekhov’s classic play and the theatrical nerve of helmer Gordon Edelstein’s adaptation for the Long Wharf Theater, where he is artistic director.
There’s no gathering round the samovar in a cozy parlor or a walk through the birch-filled woods here. Instead the production strips the script of its accoutrements, liberates the language for American ears and sees Chekhov not just as a lyrical poet and heartfelt humanist but as a theatrical existentialist.
But the production falls short in several key casting choices and perfs. Still, this provocative turn could expose a few inconvenient truths about how we view the classics and the role of a non-profit theater. Even with its flaws, this is still a worthwhile production — one that will be talked and argued about for a long time to come.
Clearly Edelstein wants to give his aud a startling and different kind of Chekhov, one whose themes of social indifference, personal catatonia and human yearning can be seen apart from traditional treatments. Instead of a musical scene-setter that’s lyrical and aching, now there’s a taut opener that recalls Philip Glass and echoes the incessant repetition of the characters lives.
Set designer Michael Yeargan has dramatically opened up and exposed the stage to the theater’s rear walls, floored it all with wood planks and positioned a leafless, lifeless tree near the back loading dock that would be right at home in “Waiting for Godot.” Christopher Akerlind washes this lonely blank slate in a wintry chill and gives shadowy form to Chekhov’s strange interludes of interior monologues.
Despite the stage’s nakedness, the opening scene is one of intimacy and warmth. Country doctor Astrov (a remarkable perf by Marco Barricelli) is laying bare his tired, disillusioned soul to housekeeper Martina (Zoaunne Leroy, who looks like the real spud.)
Barricelli brings a natural ease, clarity and grace to the part and becomes the play’s solid center, even as his own circumstances change and the layers of emotions begin to pile up. Watch him unroll his many maps and explain the deforestation of the countryside to the distracted beauty Yelena (Elisabeth Waterston); Astrov reveals himself as both a passionate idealist and a nervous suitor.
Things start to go a bit off-kilter with the arrival of the heartsick Vanya (Mark Blum). An exceptional actor (he was wonderful recently as Gayev in the Huntington’s “Cherry Orchard”), Blum starts out with a Vanya in a frenzy of ineptitude and jealousy with no place to build for the rest of the play.
Vanya’ nemesis, retired professor Serebryakov, is played with perfect pitch by William Biff Maguire, tapping into the character’s blithe insensitivity, comic crankiness and cold egotism, yet showing a man terrified of his mortality. Larry Block’s neighbor and friend Waffles is also nicely measured and suitably endearing.
But the promising production really loses its legs with two misconceived and miscast perfs. Jennifer Dundas’ Sonya is far to perky and pretty, missing the deep ache of her not-so-secret unrequited love for the doctor. Sonya does not have to be a drudge with her hair in a bun to break the audience’s heart but she has to feel an internal plainness. If the balance is off you think Astrov a fool for not sweeping Sonya away. Especially when he’s in the curious spell of Waterston’s Yelena.
Looking more like a bored flapper, Waterston (daughter of Sam) is a coltish beauty and looks smashing in Jane Greenwood’s costumes. But her vocal timber is a little green. While at times engaging with a kind of contemporary coyness, she is hardly the mesmerizing force that can unsettle a household.
Production benefits from Edelstein’s adaptation, which is clear, lively and — though at times a bit too modern (“I’ve been on a liquid diet”) — connects well for contempo auds.