“Uncle Vanya" is a comedy that concentrates on the tragic side of life.A rural community - an uncle, his niece, his mother and a doctor from nearby - is unnerved by the arrival of two personalities from the city. The appearance of the professor husband of the uncle's dead sister (he's also the father of the niece) and his unsettlingly glamorous wife should be comic - but somehow, it isn't.
Both the uncle, Vanya, and the doctor, Astrov, fall for the professor's wife. Vanya is upset by the professor's scheme to sell the estate and tries to shoot him.
Nothing ever comes off and, at the end, everyone returns to work, and the niece, Sonya, attempts to console Vanya with the promise of rest beyond the grave.
It's not pretty, but it's life.
Such is the world of Chekhov, a world that the Roundabout production of "Uncle Vanya" at the Brooks Atkinson fails to render consistently credible.
Not that this attempt at "Vanya" isn't curious.
Director Michael Mayer, an intuitive and perceptive guide to such American classics as "Side Man" and "A View From a Bridge," fails to connect and create a coherent style. Mayer simply lets his performers advance and impose themselves on us. They come on stage, sit down and talk at us. This makes "Vanya" mainly a vehicle for its actors.
Uncle Vanya is played by Derek Jacobi, who pours his brand of sad, self-pitying charm into all the antics of the man. But he seems a bit old to be in love with Yelena, the professor's wife, and to be freshly disillusioned with the professor's egoism.
Jacobi has strengths, particularly in the display of disgust, but he lacks the wackiness to give us a man who decides to get back at somebody for wasting his life.
The performance pales in contrast with Tom Courtenay's degenerate and desperately lonely Vanya at Circle in the Square in 1995. As the local doctor, Astrov, Roger Rees has similar problems. His ecological obsession and glib crush on Yelena are humorous, but he seems tired, dreary and uninvolved.
As Yelena, Laura Linney is miscast. She's not by instinct a selfish seductress. She could have been a natural Sonya, an idealistic, self-sacrificing type. But instead, Sonya is played only adequately - in a sour, grim spirit - by Amy Ryan.
The one wholly Chekhovian performance is delivered by Brian Murray. His vain, imperious, comically unperceptive Professor Serebryakov is utterly delightful. Murray's richly amusing hypochondriac is an insight into the man.
But he works without response from the others, who are offering playlets of their own. Has the cast met each other?
Set designer Tony Walton gives us a house decomposing before our eyes into odd, disjointed pieces of wood. But this decay is not paralleled elsewhere.
Mike Poulton's translation is easy, speakable, slangy. But the problem with this kind of idiomatic translation - and one is not asking for a return to mid-century unspeakabilities - is when the text insists on eloquence, the script doesn't seem to know where to go.
''Scenes From Country Life'' is the official subtitle that hangs, with the humility of a disclaimer, from the brooding masterpiece known as ''Uncle Vanya.'' But such self-effacing modesty doesn't fit the guffaw of a production that opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. No, some other appellation is required, something with a more vaudevillian punch. Perhaps something like ''Uncle Vanya, or Take My Life . . . Please.''
Anton Chekhov, meet Henny Youngman. The director Michael Mayer's ill-advised new interpretation of the 1897 drama for the Roundabout Theater Company, which manages to dim even the luster of the extraordinary British actor Derek Jacobi, seems determined to trace the borscht belt back to Mother Russia.
This is a world of stand-up sufferers, folks who never look more contented than when expounding on their profound unhappiness directly to the audience from the center of the stage. These plaints are usually delivered in loud, attention-demanding voices and embellished with big, flapping gestures. Get thee behind me, Stanislavski.
The idea of Chekhov's theatrical chronicles of disappointment as comedies has long been a subject of interpretive debate. Americans, in particular, have recently seemed most comfortable in emphasizing the farcical aspects of the playwright, as if that were the only way to avoid being boring in portraying people who are terminally bored. Several seasons ago, the physically overwrought Lincoln Center production of ''Ivanov,'' which starred Kevin Kline, turned existential ennui into something like an aerobics class.
Mr. Mayer appears to be working from the principle that in Chekhov's world life must be acknowledged as one big joke, albeit one without an explanatory punch line. The characters -- as embodied by an ensemble that includes, in addition to Mr. Jacobi, such estimable performers as Roger Rees, Brian Murray and Anne Pitoniak -- have accordingly arrived at the conclusion that given the futility of it all, you might as well laugh. This isn't, in theory, a terrible idea. But as executed here, it leads to a broad, disconnected style of performance that is as short on compassion as it is on psychological continuity. There are a few lightning flashes that illuminate the pain in the forced frivolity, mostly from Mr. Jacobi and Mr. Rees.
But by and large, you don't believe that these noisy showoffs even know one another, much less that they are capable of inflicting deep mutual pain. It is a sure sign that there has been serious miscalculation when the audience starts laughing during Sonya's final consoling speech to Vanya about life's cruelties.
Your heart aches for Amy Ryan, the young actress playing Sonya, but then your heart aches for pretty much everyone, though for reasons unintended by Chekhov. Ms. Ryan plays one of the country drudges whose lives are thrown out of joint when the estate on which they toil is visited by Sonya's father, the pompous professor Serebryakov (Mr. Murray), and his beautiful young wife, Yelena (Laura Linney).
These cosmopolitan arrivals are diverting and destructive for the provincial stay-at-homes like Sonya's embittered uncle, Vanya (Mr. Jacobi), and the more vibrant Astrov (Mr. Rees), one of Chekhov's piercing portraits of a disillusioned doctor. Astrov and Vanya are both in love with Yelena, while Astrov is worshiped by the unlovely Sonya. This doesn't keep everyone from being bored, bored, bored.
At least that's what the script, translated here in a doggedly vernacular manner by Mike Poulton, tells us. The feelings that emanate from the stage are mostly autoerotic. This has something to do with the widely divergent acting styles on display and probably more to do with the sense that the performances only rarely tally with the descriptions given by the characters of themselves and of one another.
Yelena, for example, is famously talked about as being charismatically listless, a languishing mermaid. (Janet McTeer took the idea to fascinating, somnambulistic extremes in the London production of 1992.) Yet Ms. Linney, who has previously registered most appealingly on stage (''Sight Unseen'') and film (''The Truman Show''), is here as brisk, vital and exhortative as a gym teacher who all but shouts most of her lines.
And where is the dutiful, long-suffering Sonya everyone keeps talking about? Ms. Ryan comes across as an impatient, testy virago, her face plastered with a frown that says, a la Paddy Chayevsky, ''I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!''
Mr. Murray brings his juicy flamboyance to the dry-as-dust Serebryakov and as a consequence registers as something closer to a minor Dickensian villain than anything out of Chekhov. Nor do Ms. Pitoniak as the comforting old nanny, David Patrick Kelly as the pathetic hanger-on known as Waffles and Rita Gam as Vanya's annoying and unloving mother provide any anchoring sense of credibility.
It is these smaller roles that are most essential in creating the atmosphere that defines and circumscribes the major characters. And that thick, enclosing ambience just isn't evident here, for all the show's glamorous production values: Tony Walton's truly ravishing set, David van Tighem's tapestry of rural sound effects and Kenneth Posner's handsomely moody lighting.
Mr. Rees and Mr. Jacobi could obviously, in other contexts, do marvelous things with their assigned parts. But here, being fed little emotionally by the other performers, they are forced to overcompensate with jokey flourishes and exaggerated line readings.
Since Mr. Rees is a familiar presence on the New York stage, Mr. Jacobi is the sadder casualty. This master of psychological nuance, so memorably seen in New York with the Royal Shakespeare Company, certainly isn't lacking in stylishness here, or in intriguing ideas about his character, whom he has played before in England.
His Vanya isn't the constricted, emotionally cramped creature of Ian McKellen's fine performance opposite Ms. McTeer for the Royal National Theater. He is instead extravagantly effete and discontented, given to grand gestures that he regrets as soon as he makes them.
This tendency is most spectacularly realized in Vanya's gale-force tantrum in Act III. It's a bravura moment, but so much of Mr. Jacobi's preceding performance has been pitched so close to that same level that it doesn't jolt as it should.
It is Mr. Jacobi, however, who provides the evening's only real moments of fresh insight. In particular, he gives a tantalizing new dimension to the relationship between Vanya and his sister, whose name he cannot mention without melting into misty affection.
Of course, the sister is long dead when the play begins. That she is half of the only believable relationship to be found in this ''Uncle Vanya'' is a sad indication of the production's failings.
"There's really no excuse for being bored," snips Sonya, rather dangerously, about two hours into the Roundabout Theater Co.'s new production of "Uncle Vanya." A single thought may almost be heard skittering through the heads of the audience: Wanna bet, girlfriend?
There's a lot of talk in Michael Mayer's woebegone production of the Chekhov classic, and much loud declaiming. There are quite a few tears and other assorted hysterics, a half a barrel of laughs, and a heap of acting with a capital A. But in nearly three hours of stage time there's nary a drop of authentic feeling. And since Chekhov without feeling is Chekhov without meaning, interest or point, what we have here is three hours of dead air.
Mayer is a favored director at the Roundabout, where he has received acclaim for his fine productions of "Side Man" and "A View From the Bridge." But his brash and colorful style seemed a risky choice for Chekhov, and indeed the pairing proves unfortunate. The director and his A-list cast --- which the most experienced Chekhov director might have trouble shaping into a cohesive whole --- are utterly at sea amid the subtle graces and muted emotional palette of the playwright. The play is performed as if it were some strange amalgam of Shaw, Shakespeare and a standard-issue 19th century melodrama.
Topping that A-list is Derek Jacobi, who plays the title role, and whose interest in playing Vanya in New York was likely the impetus for the production. Jacobi is, of course, a brilliant actor with a long and distinguished list of credits, but he is a brilliant actor of a specific type (as indeed all brilliant actors are): He's excelled particularly in Shakespeare, where language is the key to character and characters rise to histrionic heights on the wings of words. This Jacobi can do beautifully. But this is not required in Chekhov --- Chekhov's poetry is not in his words but in the feeling behind them, in the characters' softly yearning souls themselves. (This is one reason why his plays translate so easily and so widely.) Jacobi's Vanya, like most of the other portraits here, is soulless: all angry, pouting, screeching surface, with no believable subtext underneath. It's a sadly hammy and hollow performance.
But then it's hard to decide who among the cast's impressive roster of talents is most ineffectual here. Roger Rees, like Jacobi, is a talented actor in the classic English tradition, and as Astrov, the disappointed country doctor , he gives a classic English performance, replete with significant pauses, impassioned outbursts and the occasional toss of the head. He, too, speaks the lines of Mike Poulton's rather windy and ever-so-English-sounding translation as if they were beautiful poetry, which would be fine if the emotion behind the words were registering meaningfully. But it isn't --- neither Astrov's ardent love for Yelena, the pretty young wife of the pompous Serebryakov, nor his passion for the endangered Russian forests is communicated with conviction.
As Yelena, the object of both Astrov and Vanya's adoration, Laura Linney certainly looks resplendent in Tony Walton's plush Russian gowns, but her performance is too stiff, supercilious and stagy. Indeed Chekhov's wonderful naturalism, his studious refusal to be seen manipulating his characters for dramatic effect, is bizarrely tossed out the window in this production, in which the characters often deliver their ruminative monologues directly at the audience, and seem to fuss and fume and cry with an eye toward theatrical effect.
Perhaps because they so strenuously beg for our sympathy, the performers in this production never earn it. The beneficent charity with which Chekhov observed all his characters, and which the audience should be made to share, never comes into play here. The endless lamentations over boredom and stifled lives merely comes across as shrill selfishness and tiresome whining, and only the rather too self-conscious and starchy punch lines in Poulton's translation hittheir marks. (Perhaps because he is playing Serebryakov, the play's most unsympathetic character, Brian Murray fares best, although his robustly funny performance is hardly subtle.)
None of the quiet emotional connections in this tender web of a play are drawn competently --- this group of people who should seem to have lived together for an eternity scarcely seem to know one another, let alone share unspoken and unbreakable bonds. Even the deep affection between Vanya and his niece Sonya, the only love equation in the play that is an equal one, fails to register. (Amy Ryan's fatally untender Sonya may be part of the problem --- with her dark hair in a severe bun and a constant scowl on her face, she's more like some young Russian variant on Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers.)
It's a measure of the production's total ineffectiveness that Sonya's famous last speech, in which she speaks of renouncing all hope of happiness and urges Vanya to join her in soldiering on through a bleak future, is met with titters rather than tears. But then maybe it was merely that line about "evening after endless evening," hardly the first time this production inspires not an anguished, sympathetic hush but a sarcastic retort.