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Uncle Vanya: Disoriented Scenes From a Country Life

★★☆☆☆ Chekhov’s oft-produced tragicomedy gets a misfire of a revival at Lincoln Center
Harper and Rose in Uncle Vanya
William Jackson Harper and Anika Noni Rose in Uncle Vanya. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Last summer we had the Jack Serio–directed Uncle Vanya in a postage stamp–size private Flatiron loft that seated about 40 people per performance. Now we’re getting Lila Neugebauer’s Uncle Vanya in the ludicrously capacious 1,100-seat Vivian Beaumont Theater. Sometimes, and this is one of those times, bigger does not mean better.

In Neugebauer’s defense, many directors have been bested by the sheer size of the Beaumont. From the jump, this Vanya, with a new adaptation by Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me), feels unmoored, as lost as its restless, lovelorn characters.

The acerbic Vanya (stage neophyte Steve Carell, acquitting himself nicely) desperately loves the glamorous Elena (Tony winner Anika Noni Rose); Astrov (Primary Trust’s William Jackson Harper), country doctor by day, conservationist by night, also loves Elena; Vanya’s niece, the unglamorous but hardworking Sonia (Alison Pill), secretly loves Astrov; Elena, despite being married to Vanya’s brother-in-law, the much-older Alexander (Alfred Molina), loves no one, except perhaps herself. Alexander loves hearing himself talk. And if you look closely, near the end of the play, you’ll notice the Neighbor (Spencer Donovan Jones) gazing longingly at Sonia—a sweet and subtle touch by Neugebauer and Schreck.

Apropos of Chekhov, everyone is unhappy, full of complaints, and struggling to connect. But onstage, these actors really are struggling to connect. As one might expect from the longtime star of the mockumentary-style sitcom The Office, Carell plays up the comedy, but it pretty much works; Vanya gets a lot of zingers (“Nice weather for hanging yourself”) and humorous rants, most of which are aimed at Alexander: “He just hides in his study all day writing, writing—crapping out boring essays nobody will read. I pity the paper!… The man has been writing about art for thirty years—and he knows nothing about art! For thirty years he’s just been regurgitating other people’s ideas about modernism, postmodernism, all that crap. And now he’s been ‘forced to retire’ and nobody gives a shit about him!” Pill imbues Sonia with an almost alarming intensity. It’s a pleasure having Molina onstage again, but he’s nowhere near as irritating as he needs to be as the pompous, gout- and rheumatism-ridden Alexander, the “rotting fish” as Vanya has dubbed him. Meanwhile, Harper is by turns funny, sincere, dead-serious, casually cruel, tender—everything an Astrov should be. And Rose, unfortunately, takes her character’s above-it-all attitude too far; as Alexander’s younger and very beautiful wife, Elena is supposed to seem unattainable, not completely out of reach. She claims to be intrigued by Astrov—enough to fall into an elicit embrace—but there’s simply no spark there.

Speaking of there…where, exactly, are we? Modern times—judging by the turntable, plastic storage container, and water bottle carried by nanny Marina (the wonderful Mia Katigbak, co-founder of the National Asian American Theatre Company, in her Broadway debut). And presumably somewhere in America, since Vanya mentions “two-hundred dollars” and “almost a thousand bucks” when he and Sonia are going over the books for the farm. Perhaps that explains the disorientation that permeates this entire production.