Uncle Vanya at The Kennedy Center

In the hands of an all-Australian cast, a Hungarian director with limited English, and an adaptor who doesn’t read Russian, Anton Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya, emerges as a farcical study of dysfunction and desperation. The Sydney Theatre Company, which opened its sole U.S. engagement Saturday at the Kennedy Center, offers an energetic, darkly comic, if wildly uneven, take on the Russian classic. The veteran ensemble shines in individual moments of brilliance and fully embraces director Tamás Ascher’s capriciousness and penchant for physical comedy, yet in doing so the production sacrifices the play’s lyricism and full weight of its dramatic power.

Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Cate Blanchett as Yelena, in Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

Chekhov’s play, which at its heart is a portrait of grief and loss, follows life on a small country estate disrupted by the arrival of the retired Professor Serebryakov and his younger, unhappily married second wife, Yelena. Sonya, the professor’s daughter from his first marriage, owns the estate and lives with her uncle Vanya, who hopelessly longs for Yelena. Sonya is in love with the country doctor, Astrov, who, in turn, makes known his own attraction to the professor’s wife. For all these characters, love is pursued as a desperate escape from existential loneliness.

Andrew Upton’s lively adaptation renders the text into a variety of Australian English dialects, ranging from the educated, urbane language of Serebryakov and Yelena to the coarser, provincial tones of Sonya and Marina, the family’s old nurse. Upton’s language is lean, potent, and direct, often to the point of bluntness, and brings out Chekhov’s wry humor in a modern idiom. The adaptation gives the play freshness, vitality, and energy but blunts the lyricism of certain moments. Upton also sometimes gives in too easily to humor, turning, for example, Astrov’s deflection of an offer of vodka (translated by Paul Schmidt as “No, I don’t want to start drinking this early”) into a laugh line: “No, no, I don’t drink vodka … every day.”

The late drama critic Richard Gilman once observed that in his plays, “Chekhov has found music’s verbal and gestural equivalents, its dramaturgical counterpart.” Under Ascher’s direction, Uncle Vanya becomes something of a scherzo, a musical joke. The production is full of unpredictable humor, playfulness, and passages of impressive virtuosity but is also marked by out-of-step cadences, forcible shifts in tone, cross accents, odd pacing, and flippant phrases.

Hugo Weaving, who plays Astrov, remarked in a recent interview that a crucial challenge in acting Chekhov is dramatizing the subtext of the dialogue, as “a lot of the characters’ impulses aren’t in the text.” Yet instead of drawing out the subtleties of Chekhov’s indirections, deflections, and implicit meanings, Ascher underlines the dialogue with distracting bits of stage business and moments of physical humor veering toward slapstick. Too often, laughter breaks the tension of a scene or robs it of emotional focus. The production’s insistent physicality drowns out the meaning of what is left unsaid, the notes that remain unsounded. What individual moments may gain in immediacy and visceral impact, the overall dramatic arc loses in shape and cumulative power.

Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Cate Blanchett as Yelena in Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya – Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Cate Blanchett as Yelena in Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya – Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

The highlight of Ascher’s directorial approach arrives in Act Two, as the vodka-fuelled trio of Astrov, Vanya, and Telegin breaks out into a riotous, late-night step-dancing session. It is a raucously joyous sequence – an ephemeral moment of escapism – that builds, almost imperceptibly, out of the action with a genuine sense of spontaneity. Unfortunately, Ascher returns to the well far too many times, as characters fall out of windows, lean against open doors, make out clumsily on a divan, and initiate schoolgirl pillow fights. The surfeit of physical comedy consequently diminishes the impact of the one genuinely farcical, darkly comic moment in the play: Vanya’s wild shooting spree that closes Act Three.

The production is not helped by Ascher’s baffling decision to reset Chekhov’s 1896 play in 1950s Soviet Russia. Weaving is clad in a stylish brown leather jacket, swigs Stolichnaya vodka, and rides off in a motorbike. Cate Blanchett’s Yelena is glamorously costumed by designer Gyorgi Szakacs as a classic Hitchcock blonde, receiving the full Grace Kelly treatment in Act One (cream colored dress, chiffon scarf, ivory sunglasses, shock of red lipstick, and pearls). Meanwhile, Blanchett’s red wool crepe dress from Act Three could have been designed by Oscar de la Renta. Arias from Rigoletto and Manon play through the static of a portable transistor radio. Yet Ascher makes no attempt to draw any connection to the period beyond aesthetics, and the action has little intellectual coherence transposed to a Soviet context.

The merits of the cast, thankfully, survive Ascher’s direction. Richard Roxburgh, leading the cast as Vanya, offers an energetic, broad-gestured performance, full of anguish, rage, and self-laceration. Shot through with neediness, envy, and an ever-growing desperation, Roxburgh’s breakdown in Act Three is genuinely riveting. Weaving’s Astrov is wryly humorous and sharply observant yet at times relies too readily on his roguish charm, missing the full weight of Astrov’s descent into cynicism.

Blanchett, meanwhile, masks a fraught and turbulent inner life with her elegance and frequent protestations of boredom. Blanchett’s Yelena, perhaps more mature and self-assured than the archetype, is an intelligent and restrained portrait of a deeply unhappy and existentially lost woman, who struggles desperately to suppress her inner impulses. The production makes frequent use of Blanchett’s talent for physical comedy, yet Blanchett more often impresses in moments of understatement, such as when she slyly takes a pencil from Weaving’s pocket as a keepsake.

Hayley McElhinney’s Sonya exhibits a coarse yet appealingly girlish charm but overplays her naïve, drunken swooning over Astrov. McElhinney also misses something of Sonya’s dramatic arc and inadequately prepares us for the painful lyricism of her final speech.

A purist would note, in closing, that unlike with The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov did not classify Uncle Vanya as a comedy but gave it the more neutral subtitle, “Scenes from Country Life.” Playing Uncle Vanya as farce merely gives the audience an easy defense mechanism against a fuller and more profound confrontation with the painful emotional truths of Chekhov’s drama.

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Uncle Vanya plays through August 27th at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online, or call (800) 444-1324.