The Pearl Theatre Company, which occupies a fine modern facility on West 42nd Street near 11th Avenue, has selected Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in a translation by the late Paul Schmidt, to open its 2014–15 season. Subtitled “Scenes from Country Life,” this comedy—or, rather, this special, melancholy kind of comedy—is one of four major plays the dramatist wrote near the end of his relatively short life.
The characters of Uncle Vanya are recognizable in their frustration and disappointment; their bickering and folly are readily believable. Though short on plot, the text is rich in dialogue and subtext. It's a beloved and influential play, constantly revived all over the world. Recent American works such as Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang (the most produced script in professional theaters around the U.S. this season, according to American Theater magazine) and The Country House by Donald Margulies (newly opened at Broadway's Friedman Theatre) owe it a conspicuous debt. When Uncle Vanya returns to New York, attention must be paid.
The play takes place on a country estate run by Sonya (Michelle Beck) and her maternal uncle (Chris Mixon), the title character. Sonya's father, Alexander Serebriakov (Dominic Cuskern), is a vainglorious scholar whose career and vitality are winding down. Serebriakov's luxurious city existence has been financed by the hard work and frugal living of Sonya and Vanya on the farm. Arriving in the country for an open-ended stay, the professor and his much younger wife, Yelena (Rachel Botchan), interrupt the rhythms of country life. Their selfish, inconsiderate ways exacerbate resentments that have festered in the family for years; and Yelena's flirtatious allure leads to intrigue (or attempts at intrigue) and emotional havoc among males in the vicinity, especially Vanya and a family friend, Dr. Astrov (Bradford Cover).
The Pearl's production, directed by company artistic director Hal Brooks, is exquisite to behold. With movable pillars and fast traveling curtains, scenic designer Jason Simms transports the action efficiently from one room to another. A backdrop in soft colors, revealed when actors sweep the upstage curtains aside, brings the Russian countryside on stage; and Seth Reiser's expertly modulated lighting lends a sense of time passing from day to night and back to day at a languid pace appropriate to Chekhov.
This Uncle Vanya has no shortage of capable actors. Robin Leslie Brown brings intelligence and a light touch to the role of Marina, the old nurse who soothes shattered nerves and offers a long view of life. Cover's interpretation of Dr. Astrov is complex and arresting; his speech about reforestation is appropriate to the play's 19th-century setting yet sounds like something that might have been delivered at United Nations Climate Summit 2014 last month.
Mixon makes Vanya's disillusion palpable in the first two acts; but he plays the late scenes in a manic fashion that's anathema to Chekhov’s subtle brand of comedy and, at times, reminiscent of 1970s television sitcom. Other promising performances—Beck, Brad Heberlee as a neighbor nicknamed Waffles, and Carol Schultz as the foolish mother of the professor’s deceased first wife—suffer from direction that squeezes a sort of hilarity out of the script rather than trusting the playwright’s rueful humor. Botchan strikes the appropriate balance of insouciance and formidable stage presence for her role; but this Yelena seems to have wandered onto the Pearl stage from a play of later vintage than Uncle Vanya and from a different country than the other characters.
For a number of years, the Pearl has been one of the few companies in New York City consistently performing the so-called classical repertory of Western drama. The troupe’s tagline is “defining classics for New York,” and its work, whether up or down, is worth following. Uncle Vanya doesn't represent the Pearl anywhere near the top of its form; but next month the company, in tandem with the Gingold Theatrical Group, will present George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, directed by David Staller. If Major Barbara has the style, pace, and Shavian spirit of last season's You Never Can Tell, audiences will undoubtedly forget the shortcomings of Uncle Vanya and may even line up to renew their Pearl subscriptions early.
Uncle Vanya is playing through Oct. 12 at the Pearl Theatre Co. (555 West 42nd St.). Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.; and Thursday–Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65, senior $39, student rush $20, Thursday rush $20, and may be purchased at pearltheatre.org or by calling 212-563-9261.