With "Vanya on 42nd Street" already in release and three more film versions to come, Circle in the Square's revival of "Uncle Vanya" prompts the question: Why the "Vanya" glut?
One reason is that by fretting over the environment, "Uncle Vanya's" characters sound like contemporary trendies. Another is that the play is so direct: Who cannot identify with people in middle age whose declarations of the futility of life seem a way to justify the betrayal of their youthful hopes?
Circle's highly enjoyable revival of Chekhov's play about upper-class people perplexed and enervated by rural life has a crisp British efficiency, hardly a surprise, given that it was directed by Braham Murray, artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester, and stars Tom Courtenay, James Fox and Amanda Donohoe.
The Brits get the humor of Chekhov better than we do. (We tend to make these plays lugubrious, as if all the characters knew that the Revolution was coming.) What is lacking here is a certain diffidence, the sense that the characters are groping with things that bewilder them.
Courtenay's Vanya, for example, is, from the outset, so angst-ridden you wonder if Courtenay felt he had to give an emotionally overladen performance for New York. Chekhov invariably benefits from the Brit stiff upper lip.
As his close friend, a doctor with an aversion to many of the people who need him, Fox has a suitable doltishness and priggishness, though we never sense the depth of his passion for Elena, the married woman both he and Vanya love.
Donohoe is a take-charge Elena, her own insecurities not clearly enough defined.
Werner Klemperer has the right bluster as her husband. Kate Skinner is a bit strident as Sonia - she seldom seems poignant.
Elizabeth Franz' role as Vanya's radical mother has been significantly cut.
The show, which opened last night, is beautifully designed. It moves smoothly and amusingly, if not touchingly.
The joke about "Uncle Vanya" is that Anton Chekhov wrote an extraordinarily funny comedy about boredom yet it crumbles into tragedy before our very eyes.
Lost loves and wasted lives - both are trials and tribulations to be stoically borne by all but the selfishly careless and the luckily carefree. Life is work, most of it pointless, all of it - except for creative spirits - boring.
Indeed "Uncle Vanya" is a kind of elegiac threnody to boredom, written, appropriately, in 1889 to herald boredom's classic era, the 20th-century. Yet even if its subject is boredom, this funny, sad and beautiful play never for a moment bores - it is galvanic even with the curious flatness of life.
It is the most direct, the least layered of all Chekhov's major plays - the story itself has a swift clarity in the telling with none of the undertones of subtext, even the variations of mood, we value so much in the other works.
This directness was well to the fore in the simple, unmannered staging that director Braham Murray, from Manchester's famous Royal Exchange Theater offered of "Uncle Vanya" last night at the Circle in the Square Theater. Even Loren Sherman's attempt at an environmental setting (the theater walls are a painted landscape) makes the most of the theater's cockpit stage area.
Although, with its ensemble led by Tom Courtenay this was something of a star-studded occasion - not unlike the last time the Circle in the Square gave us "Vanya" in 1973, when Mike Nichols had a cast including Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott and Julie Christie - Murray's cool and temperate approach virtually eliminated star turns.
It was Chekhov who had the first and last word; Here was this odd family, living on a huge run-down estate in the Russian provinces, unhappy in the way that only Russians can be, and then only in Russian literature.
The estate belongs to a pompous windbag of a retired professor (Werner Klemperer) - actually it belongs to his daughter Sonya (Kate Skinner) but no one is counting - who has come, accompanied by his young second wife, Yelena (Amanda Donohoe), to the decaying mansion to write his masterpiece.
The beautiful, if destructive, Yelena quickly and disastrously turns the middle-aged heads of the professor's brother-in-law Vanya (Courtenay), who has, helped by Sonya, been running the estate, and the visiting local doctor, Astrov (James Fox).
Chaos, frustration, misery and even attempted murder erupt. And it all ends in a deadly grave peace. Life continues.
The present production - using Jean-Claude Itallie's modern yet never anachronistic translation - places the emphasis very much on Vanya, as the child-man the perpetual adolescent, slowly absorbing the depth of his failure.
When Courtenay, faced with the professor's impossible demand to sell the estate, burst out: "I could have been a Schopenhauer a Dostoevski," it's funny because it's absurd, and moving because somehow Courtenay almost, but never quite, believes it.
Courtenay's morose, yet jaunty peevishness, his odd whine of a voice, pitched at a level of constant complaint and disappointment, his shaggy body-language, suggesting a marionette who has known better days all come together in a self-portrait of despair, first recognized, vainly fought against, and, finally, stoically accepted.
This is the least poetic Vanya I can recall, but one of the most bitterly realistic. But it perhaps needs better support.
The flaw is the mis-casting of the normally admirable Fox as the wood-demon Astrov. The dynamics don't work here - Astrov is meant to be, in Yelena's words "a free spirit, a dreamer." The droopy-mustached Fox isn't: he plays Astrov as if he were understudying Vanya.
This could be the director's devious intent - to make everyone not be what they would hope to be. Donohoe's glamorous Yelena, for example, seems a mass of provincial affectations totally lacking in sincerity.
However Klemperer as the petulantly blustering professor, Skinner's intensely alive Sonya, Gerry Bamman as a distraught loser, and Bette Henritz's implacable babushka of a servant, are all much more straightfowardly presented.
And at the end we have laughed and suffered at the long littleness of life - just as Chekhov meant us to laugh and suffer.
"Uncle Vanya," the second of Anton Chekhov's four great plays, was first produced by the Moscow Art Theater 96 years ago and, it's probably safe to say, hasn't remained long unproduced, in one form or another, any time since then. Right now we're in a veritable siege of "Vanyas."
Still available at a local movie theater is the adventurous Louis Malle film adaptation of Andre Gregory's "Vanya on 42d Street," featuring Wallace Shawn's remarkable performance in the title role. Coming soon are two more screen versions, Michael Blakemore's "Country Life," set in the Australian outback, and "August," directed by Anthony Hopkins, who also stars in it.
Last night Braham Murray, the English director, opened his new stage production at the Circle in the Square. It stars Tom Courtenay as Vanya and uses Jean-Claude van Itallie's American translation. Among other things, the production is a startling reminder that while the play is forever adaptable, it's not indestructible.
Or, to put it another way, somewhere during the second act, the production made me long to be someplace else, maybe even watching the "Charley's Aunt" that Mr. Murray did some years ago in England with Mr. Courtenay playing Lord Fancourt Babberley. Somewhere along the line, this "Uncle Vanya" got off on the wrong foot, or feet. I say that advisedly. Feet, and what to do with them, figure in what's wrong at the Circle in the Square, but more about that later.
Mr. Murray seems to have locked onto the concept that "Uncle Vanya" is really about a dysfunctional family. That may be true, but only up to a very small point. The term "dysfunctional family" describes a rather dreary situation without illuminating it or putting it into any context. This is the effect of the new production, which works principally as a dramatized synopsis of the unhappy lives of Vanya, his niece Sonya, her windily pompous old father, Serebryakov (a once-famous professor and literary critic), her beautiful young stepmother, Yelena, and the various other members of their extended family.
Missing from the Murray production is any sense of the community on the great rundown estate that is the play's setting. Part of this may be the result of the often impertinent demands made by the Circle in the Square's stage: the audience sits around the four sides, looking down onto the long rectangular space that is the playing area.
To fill that space, and to give every patron an equal opportunity to see what's going on, the actors are often not only so spread out as to seem in different universes, but they must also keep moving and turning arbitrarily. The result is a production that visually reflects the lack of connections between the actors, between actors and text, and between play and audience. This is fatal to a comedy that, for all of the disappointments and antagonisms it lays bare, celebrates intimacy and interdependence.
"Uncle Vanya" takes place over the course of one summer in the country, when Serebryakov and Yelena are making one of their infrequent visits to the estate that supports them. Their presence not only ruins the routine of Vanya and Sonya, but also forces them to acknowledge everything they have given up to keep the fatuous old professor and Yelena in comfort elsewhere.
Vanya adores Yelena, but loathes the professor more. Sonya, who loves the drunken, visionary doctor, Astrov, enlists Yelena's aid in her suit, only to realize that Astrov loves Yelena. Yelena, who fell in love with Serebryakov's celebrity when she was still a girl, only now acknowledges her profound disappointment.
"Uncle Vanya" should not be played in slow motion, but it must evoke a mood of leisure, of indolence. Its fearful revelations are prompted as much by unbearable, continuing physical and emotional closeness as by anger and frustration. Instead of comic melancholy, this production emphasizes feelings of spite, impotence, degeneration. The lines one hears most clearly sound as if they were intended to parody Chekhov: "My life is wasted." "I'm in Hell." "You exhaust me." "I disgust myself." "You bore me."
Mr. Courtenay's Vanya is a handsome wreck of a man who makes his first entrance sort of tottering, which can be explained by his having just awakened from a nap. But then he never really stops tottering, seeming always to take one step back before taking a series of steps forward. As you watch his feet, you may suspect that Mr. Murray elected not to direct but to choreograph him. The text sounds declaimed, often with the unexpected inflections intended to make us hear the words more clearly, though their meanings are frequently muddied. Vanya's irony is lost in fury.
The production's most self-assured, fully realized performance is that of Amanda Donohoe, who plays Yelena. The English-born and bred Ms. Donohoe, best known here for her two seasons on the television series "L.A. Law," has the voice and gravely tentative manner that perfectly suit the unhappy beauty.
Another usually fine English performer, James Fox, who plays Astrov, sails through his role at speed, as do most of the other actors. Werner Klemperer's Serebryakov is adequate and conventional, as is Gerry Bamman's Telyegin, the family hanger-on nicknamed Waffles. It doesn't help that Mr. Klemperer and Mr. Bamman look somewhat alike, with their bald heads and full beards, which suggests a blood tie not in the script.
Kate Skinner is very earnest as the miserable Sonya, while Elizabeth Franz (remember her as Sister Mary Ignatius?) plays Vanya's loftily unsympathizing mother, who much prefers the professor to her son.
Mr. Murray's production skims across the surface of this heartbreaking and exalting play as if it were a vat of boiling chicken broth: dangerous to the touch. Anger and petulance have replaced Chekhov's evocation of longing and resignation. Gone, too, is the revivifying sense of imperfect humanity bumbling through history, sometimes heroically.
With "The Shadow Box" in December, Circle in the Square struggled back to life with a fine production of a play that after just 15 years failed to meet the test of time. With "Uncle Vanya," the reverse is the case, a lifeless, aimless presentation of a century-old play that has not only stood the test of time but is currently so in vogue that several readings are available to the Chekhov enthusiast.
The pity is that with Tom Courtenay in the title role, 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 Klemperer), whom he has only recently come to realize is not an intellectual paragon, but a third-rate academic.
Courtenay capably plumbs the depths of Vanya's sadness and humiliation 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's 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 Theatre 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 conservationist whose charisma and bristling creativity make him irresistible even to Yelena -- James Fox is a stiff. Where passion is required, as when Astrov describes the defoliation of the forests, Fox is egregious, a prattling bore.
Donohoe plays Yelena as coy and smug; when Astrov describes her swaying sensuousness, we look in vain for any sign of it in the performance.
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, Loren 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 comes to life, and it pales before the most significant "Vanya" of our time, Andre Gregory's utterly engrossing "Vanya on 42 nd Street," adapted for film by Louis Malle, with Wallace Shawn in the title role and Larry Pine as Astrov.
"Vanya on 42nd Street" is the real thing. "Vanya" on 50th Street, on the other hand, is stock goods.