Listening to ‘Uncle Vanya’ With Virgin Ears

Posted September 16, 2018 10:07 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — When did you acquire this new set of ears? You’re watching a play you thought you knew better than you know your best friend, and yet suddenly it sounds different. It’s clearer, truer and more comprehensible than it’s ever been before, as if it had always been operating on a frequency that you’ve only now been given access to.

Such experiences happen seldom to even the most devoted theatergoers. Which is why I’m still shivery, teary-eyed and stunned from seeing Richard Nelson’s devastatingly intimate production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which opened Sunday night at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College.

I’ve attended at least a dozen versions of “Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts” (to use its full, deceptively straightforward title), performed by the some of the starriest casts ever assembled in the name of Chekhov. A few of them — most recently, one from the Sydney Theater Company, with Cate Blanchett — were thrilling.

But none felt as immediately personal or as emotionally coherent as this Hunter Theater Project production, which features Jay O. Sanders in the title role, giving a career-high performance. Directed by Nelson — from his limpid, streamlined (105-minute) adaptation with the veteran translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — this is as naked and fully human an “Uncle Vanya” as we’re likely to see.

Nelson’s impeccably balanced ensemble doesn’t seem to be so much interpreting the script as living it. There’s very little Acting, with a capital A, which means few of the flamboyant displays of the eccentricities for which Chekhov’s characters are famed. These are performances that dare to be as ordinary — “trite” is a much-used word — as the people they are portraying fear they are. Each one is as humdrum, and specifically individual, as you or I.

Everything has the shimmer of unmediated transparency, as if the performers were conduits for thought made visible. This is surely the most willfully modest “Uncle Vanya” on record, and it speaks, for the most part, in a self-effacing murmur, which invites you to lean in and eavesdrop.

You not only want to listen to what’s being said; you also feel it’s somehow a moral imperative. After all, those unhappy, unfulfilled inhabitants of an isolated estate in 19th-century Russia must be heard and understood by someone, anyone. And it’s not a service they’re about to provide for one another.

As both playwright and director, Nelson has made a highly refined art of drama as privileged eavesdropping. It’s an effect he has achieved most memorably in his two multipart cycles, “The Apple Family Plays” and “The Gabriels,” in which family members discussed the state of their lives and their nation in real time.

For “Uncle Vanya,” Nelson uses two actors who originated parts in those earlier works, Sanders and Jon DeVries. He also employs a similar mise-en-scène. The set by Jason Ardizzone-West (who worked on “The Gabriels” at the Public), lighted by the great Jennifer Tipton, again consists principally of simple tables and chairs, which are first seen clumped together, like furniture in storage.

The cast members file on in contemporary work clothes (Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss did the costumes), to arrange these discrete pieces, accessorizing them with dishes and foodstuffs. As in the “Apple and “Gabriel” plays, food is an anchor, grounding abstract and fanciful talk in the reality of subsistence.

The performers are creating the environment for the lives to be lived here, which makes the characters feel quite literally like the architects of their own destinies. Not that this is how they regard themselves.

Not Vanya, the steward of his late sister’s estate (played with defiant, abject rawness by a brilliant Sanders); or his niece and fellow manager, Sonya (Yvonne Woods, pinched with care); or her imperious father, Alexander Serebryakov (an elegant, fatuous DeVries), an aging professor in residence with his new, beautiful young wife, Elena (Celeste Arias, giving a traditionally glamorous part a homespun naïveté).

These people — who are visited by a dashing, but increasingly weary country doctor, Mikhail Astrov (a quietly sexy and damningly perceptive Jesse Pennington) — tend to speak of themselves as helpless, passive beings, pushed into place by circumstance and more extreme personalities. Don’t believe them.

What emerges so clearly here — as they snipe, quarrel, make up and haplessly pursue love affairs that are never going to happen — is that they’ve all made their own beds, for reasons of convenience or for quixotic ideals that don’t look so fine anymore. (On the other hand, Astrov’s worries about the forests his country is destroying sound newly relevant.)

They may all see themselves as misfits, to use a word Nelson has said was central to his approach to this adaptation. But feeling like a misfit turns out to make no one special; it is the universal human condition.

As they keep talking, occasionally directly to us (which feels fully earned here), and with increasing frustration at the lack of a receptive audience among their nearest and dearest, these fretful souls begin to acknowledge the extent to which they have set their own traps. When the big emotional explosions come, hard and heartbreaking, they feel as inevitable as they do startling.

If you’ve been paying close attention through all the sotto voce conversation, you’ll have observed the increasing friction that comes from people in close quarters tiptoeing carefully around one another’s sensitivities. (You may find it reminds you of overcrowded family vacations you’ve known.)

Each of the cast — which also includes Kate Kearney-Patch as the clan’s former (and forever) nanny and Alice Cannon as Vanya’s unloving mother, both excellent — provides a seemingly effortless study in passive aggression. The performances are so self-effacing, you won’t at first realize how thorough and completely felt they are. By the end, you will have come to understand — and to identify with — each of them, whether you’ve wanted to or not.

When Sanders’ Vanya finally erupts into a violent denunciation of not just those around him but of everything he once believed, the vicarious pain feels almost too immediate to bear. Such is the price you pay for the privilege of crawling beneath the skin of a Chekhov masterwork.


Production Notes:

‘Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts’

Through Oct. 14 at the Frederick Loewe Theater; Manhattan, 212-772-4448. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

By Anton Chekhov; translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky; directed by Nelson; sets by Jason Ardizzone-West; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; costumes by Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss; sound by Will Pickens; production stage manager, Theresa Flanagan. Presented by Hunter Theater Project.

Cast: Yvonne Woods (Sónya), Jay O. Sanders (Ványa), Jon DeVries (Alexánder Serebryakóv), Celeste Arias (Eléna), Alice Cannon (Márya), Kate Kearney-Patch (Marína) and Jesse Pennington (Mikhaíl Ástrov).