Celebrity couple Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard may be the big draw for this Classic Stage Company production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” But while they give good value as the passionate lovers in a doomed romance, this attractive pair is by no means the show’s sole attribute. Austin Pendleton’s helming is physically energetic and far less gloomy than the customary theatrical take, allowing a sterling ensemble to exercise its comedic chops on the scribe’s complaining privileged classes. Among these 19th century whiners, Denis O’Hare’s Vanya uses an arsenal of neurotic tics to convey his generation’s lost dreams and hopeless aspirations.
Although Santo Loquasto’s two-story set is more eye-catching than practical, with its deliberately obtrusive central staircase and spatially divisive beams, it’s a pleasure to follow the designer’s visual invitation to wander its half-hidden nooks and crannies, trying to read book jackets and peek behind the couch cushions in Vanya’s study.
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Suzy Benzinger’s gorgeous hand-worked costumes are no less detailed, providing subtle clues to character in everything from the number of embroidery stitches on a peasant blouse to the fabric weight of Yelena’s elegant traveling coat. The people who live in these cluttered rooms (thrown into mysterious shadow by Jason Lyons’ lighting) and feel comfortable wearing these intricately worked outfits are people who shouldn’t be taken at face value.
The play is set on a country estate in the last days of summer, and, according to the static action of the drama, everyone in the household is bored to death and waiting for something to happen. Pendleton’s directorial coup has been to make their boredom palpable — to make waiting a physical activity.
The aged professor Serebryakov, a fierce little tyrant in George Morfogen’s perf, views the family estate as his personal fiefdom and all its residents as his subjects. Frustrated by age and infirmity, he fusses and squawks and plucks at his blankets like a caged chicken, keeping the exhausted household in a constant state of crankiness.
His young wife, Yelena, is perishing of boredom — a state that Gyllenhaal wittily conveys in a series of theatrically listless poses. Whether draping herself over a chair, collapsing onto a table, or curling herself around the nearest man, thesp captures Yelena’s affectations without humiliating her. And as Chekhov’s narcissistic monsters tend to do, she drives all the men wild.
No less than Dostoevsky, who admittedly made a much bigger deal about it, Chekhov was fascinated by the way attractive parasites like the fraudulent scholar Serebryakov and his beauteous, but useless wife could cloud Russia’s brightest minds and distract a nation from its work.
Only Sonya (Mamie Gummer), the workhorse of the family, has the clarity of vision to recognize that Yelena and the professor are sapping the family of its collective will to work and create. In Gummer’s delicately shaded perf, Sonya’s vision deepens and darkens as she comes to realize her own chances for love have been corrupted by the “infection” that Yelena has brought into the house.
It’s only fitting, then, that Yelena’s primary victim should be the sensitive, hard-working and utterly hapless Uncle Vanya, who is well aware of his foolish behavior, but can’t help himself. In O’Hare’s appealing, quirky perf, Vanya laughs, cries and makes bitter jokes at the laughing stock he has become, without giving up on the delicious agony of it all.
Although he is better at maintaining his dignity, Dr. Astrov is so smitten by Yelena, he neglects his patients, falling into a near-hypnotic state that Sarsgaard conveys with a wonderfully wild glint in his eye.
In thrall to her languid charms, he even shares his vision of hard work and selfless charity. A hard-boiled realist, for all her tender affectations, Yelena disabuses him of that notion. “It’s only in romantic novels that you teach and take care of peasants,” she snaps.
Clearly, these would-be lovers are seriously mismatched. Yet, when Yelena and Astrov grapple one another in their big seduction scene, Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard allow them to be ludicrous, but also oddly touching. Which is pretty much Chekhov’s view of Russia’s petulant privileged classes — so ridiculous, you really have to cry.