New York Post
July 22, 2012
It’s not often that a Chekhov play is almost drowned by laughter.
Yet that’s exactly what happens at the Sydney Theatre Company’s “Uncle Vanya,” which just opened at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Director Tamás Ascher and his pitch-perfect cast, led by Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, understand that characters who are so miserable, so uncomfortable with themselves, are as comical as they are touching.
The play takes place on an estate where the middle-aged Vanya (Richard Roxburgh, crumpled yet electric) and his niece, Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), host Sonya’s father (John Bell) and his younger second wife, Yelena (the extraordinary Blanchett).
The city mice’s summer visit brings out the country mice’s anxieties and dissatisfactions. You’ll be hard-pressed to find people who spend more time complaining, but Ascher underlines the darkly humorous side of this stereotypically Russian existential distress. At times, it feels downright sacrilegious, especially in the free-flowing adaptation by Andrew Upton (Blanchett’s husband): How dare they make fun of all this serious stuff!
But the show cleverly has it both ways. It has obvious affection for the characters while showing they’re stuck in a rut.
“Uncle Vanya, this is boring,” Sonya says after he launches into the kind of “woe is me” tirade she’s probably heard a million times. It’s a funny bit, but we still feel his pain.
Poor Vanya: He’s in love with Yelena, who’s also wooed by the local doctor, Astrov (Weaving) — himself the subject of Sonya’s affection. Of course nobody gets satisfaction: “Uncle Vanya” is about fruitless longing. It’s only that here we see how ridiculous the whining and moping can get.
Looking resplendent in Györgyi Szakács’ costumes, Blanchett embodies this ambivalence. The star displays a surprising gift for slapstick — her Yelena is a beautiful klutz. But she also captures the restlessness of a deeply insecure woman.
The relationship between Yelena and Sonya is particularly well handled. Yelena looks like she would have the upper hand — she’s a stunning object of desire — but the plain Sonya, whom everybody takes for granted, has the most inner strength of anybody in the house.
Things eventually head into a confrontation, but nothing is solved and we’re back to square one. You want to chuckle once more at the despair, but it gets stuck in your throat.