Review: “Uncle Vanya”

David Darlow (Serbryakov), Kristen Bush (Yelena), Tim Hopper (Vanya), Marilyn Dodds Frank (Maria), Larry Neumann Jr. (Telegin), Caroline Neff (Sonya) and Mary Ann Thebus (Marina) in the Chicago premiere of Annie Baker’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, directed by Robert Falls. GoodmanTheatre.org/UncleVanya

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Where: Goodman Theatre Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through March 19
Tickets: $20-$59
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

You could think of Anton Chekhov as the father of the modern dysfunctional family comedy. In “Uncle Vanya,” nothing much really happens, and the members of an extended middle-class family and their neighbors spend most of their time complaining about their lot in life, their health, their unrequited love, and each other. At Goodman Theatre, the adaptation by Annie Baker (“The Flick”)—working from Margarita Shalina’s literal translation and the original Russian text—makes them seem more contemporary than often is the case, because she employs familiar words like “creep” and an easy-going style with lots of pregnant pauses.

Or you could think of “Uncle Vanya” as the forerunner of existential tragicomedies like “Waiting for Godot” and “No Exit.” Underlying the characters’ boredom, frustration, and desperation, is the monumental realization that their lives are meaningless and have no purpose, even if some of them are in denial.

The Goodman production directed by Robert Falls falls somewhere in between. While much of it, especially early on, seems to be played for laughs, the existential angst is certainly apparent. What is mostly missing, though, is the subtext: a sense of all the unarticulated emotions that make us care about these people and their plight.

Of the many interpretations I’ve seen, Falls’s makes me acutely aware of the extent to which Uncle Vanya (Tim Hopper, increasingly agitated and angry) and the others are responsible for their own misery. Even though he knows that Yelena Andreyevna (Kristen Bush), the professor’s beautiful young second wife, doesn’t love him, Vanya throws himself into his passion for her, as if he’s as much in love with the idea of being in love as with the object of his affections. Equally important, his anger at the professor, Alexander Serebryakov (David Darlow, underplaying a bit), stems not only from the belief that he’s wasted his life toiling on the estate to support the retired art critic, but also from the realization that the man he once revered is a pompous fraud. Vanya’s disillusionment builds to a furious outburst when the self-invovled professor suggests selling the estate to finance his life in the city, especially since it actually belongs to Sonya (Caroline Neff), his daughter by his deceased first wife, Vanya’s sister.

Yelena, too, has become disillusioned. She married the much older professor thinking she loved him but has discovered she doesn’t, and now she’s too bored to do anything about it or to find something to occupy her life, except almost dallying with Dr. Astrov (Marton Csokas in a captivatingly complex performance), Vanya’s friend who lives nearby and visits frequently. A physician with a serious taste for vodka, he’s disillusioned with his fellow human beings and practically everything except his conservation efforts and natural beauty; hence, he becomes totally taken with Yelena.

Meanwhile, long-suffering Sonya is hopelessly in love with Dr. Astrov, who is oblivious to her feelings and merely regards her as a friend. While she tries to take refuge in her work on the estate and in religion, she also forms a tentative bond with Yelena, who she previously disliked and who tries to ascertain what the doctor really thinks.

Religion is the bulwark for Marina (Mary Ann Thebus), the old nanny who goes around nattering, cackling at the animals, mothering Dr. Astrov, and serving tea. Rounding out those in and out of residence are Vanya’s mother, Maria Vasilyevna (a dryly hilarious Marilyn Dodds Frank), who still idolizes the professor; Ilya Ilich Telegin, known as “Waffles” (Larry Neumann, Jr.) for his pockmarked face, the impoverished landowner from whose father the estate was purchased; Yefim (Alžan Pelesìć), a hired man, and a Servant (Olexiy Kryvych).

In their ennui, Yelena and the others talk about needing to get out of the house, and with the help of Keith Parham’s moody lighting, Todd Rosenthal’s stunning set of the sitting room in a crumbling country mansion provides the perfect visual metaphor of an environment that’s as toxic and enervating as it is beautiful in a decaying sort of way. The ceiling even leaks during a storm, and Sonya tries to catch the drips with pots, one of Baker’s and Falls’s savvy tweaks. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes reflect the characters’ positions and personalities more than any specific time or place. Richard Woodbury’s sound design animates everything from unseen animals to a spirited Russian song.

While the Goodman’s “Uncle Vanya” is competent or better in every way, I must confess that it doesn’t really speak to me as much as it should. Not sure why, but it may be because there is so much going on on the surface and not enough underneath.