Buried on a country estate

Anton Chekhov famously termed his full-length plays “comedies,” and audiences have been expecting Russian penis jokes ever since. Alas, that is to misapprehend the nature of Chekhov (and perhaps even the nature of comedy): The line between comedy and tragedy is far blurrier than that between, say, farce and Götterdämmerung. For Chekhov, the minutiae of daily life — the beats and pauses between word and action, between emotion and enunciation — constitute the bleakest sort of comedy, as bourgeois provincials amuse or bore themselves quite nearly to death. But the greater comedy is that which happens offstage, after a theater-member goes home and experiences, in an otherwise unassuming kitchen or porch, a profoundly disquieting Chekhovian moment of melancholy or wanderlust. Suddenly, the joke’s on us.

And so it is with Uncle Vanya, one of the playwright’s so-called “Major Plays,” and one that — along with e.g. The Seagull and The Three Sisters — masterfully explores the comic potential of grand passions thwarted by the banality of simple existence. The setup: The titular Vanya helps manage the country estate of Serebryakov, an ailing university professor of art. Serebryakov soon moves in with his second wife, Yelena, who is, as these things go, both ravishingly beautiful and naturally miserable. As one unhappy love triangle forms in the first act, another coalesces in the second act, as Serebryakov’s daughter falls for a country doctor, who himself vacillates between his love for Yelena and … trees. (Some playwrights craft plots of wheels within wheels; for Chekhov, it’s triangles within triangles, with a welcome dollop of environmental sustainability.)

The Classic Theatre’s production, still in rehearsals at Monday evening’s preview performance, successfully captures the essence of Chekhov’s vision of dysfunction, though not without some hiccups along the way. In particular, most of the cast races to match the wonderful energy and polish of Anthony Ciaravino’s Astrov, the debonair country physician with a roving eye and bottomless dendrophilia. (Sure, tree-hugging is a niche hobby, but at least the doctor has one.) Ciaravino’s good doctor is so charismatic, in fact, that he threatens to disturb the balance of the play: John Minton’s Vanya, a sad sack of a man, should be the play’s central, tragic figure, but Minton’s oversized, even clownish take on the character somehow makes him less affecting than the assured, oh-so-likeable Astrov. (Both actors need to tone down their mutual drunk scene, however. The gulf between Chekhov and Animal House remains large.)

Uncle Vanya
Thu-Sun, through Aug 30
The Classic Theatre
(210) 589-8450

Emily Spicer’s Yelena (elegantly costumed by Margaret Mitchell) looks every inch the femme fatale, with an elaborate coiffure calculated to drive men and honeybees wild. And when Spicer clicks with Ciaravino — as in, for instance, a complex interview of seduction and confession — the production achieves an exquisite combination of Chekhovian text and subtext, of desire expressed and action (as ever!) deferred. But Spicer’s demeanor is otherwise so frosty it’s hard to understand why anyone would be attracted to her, unless profound bitchiness is irresistible. Laura Darnell, as the young and lovelorn Sonya, never quite gets a handle on Chekhov’s language, but her own beauty provides a moving contrast to her character’s (purported) homeliness and self-

Allan S. Ross — who wears two (fur-lined?) hats as both Serebryakov and set designer — contributes an elegant, if somewhat unorthodox, set: a fleet of skeletal walls, windows, and doors, set off by an orchard of trees. (I’d like to think they’re cherry.) On the one hand, it’s an efficient mechanism for scene changes; on the other hand, the bleakness of the set sometimes works against the implications of the text. (For instance, wouldn’t a professor of art hang at least one painting? Or is he an entirely ironic professor of art? That would totally rock.) Fortunately, Andy Thornton’s thoughtful direction complements the bare “canvas” of the set with tableaux straight from the Old Masters: the final scene — of characters endlessly repeating the most tedious of household chores — deftly sketches a still life of these stillest of lives. (Or, more accurately perhaps, these liveliest of deaths.)

To paraphrase an old aphorism: Dying is easy, Chekhov is hard, and the Classic Theatre is to be commended for attempting the big C. at all. And I’ll bet my last ruble that Thursday’s opening will have corrected a lot of the tonal inconsistencies and strengthened the core of this beautiful, disquieting play. If you’ve any interest at all in serious theater, plan to Chekh it out.

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