By Tulis McCall

Regarding “Uncle Vanya” now at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater – even though this play is titled Uncle Vanya the play is about love. Specifically, the love felt by Vanya (Steve Carrell) and Doctor Astrov (William Jackson Harper) for Vanya’s brother-in-law’s new wife, Elena (Anika Nani Rose).  (The familial connections do get tangled…) Alexander (Alfred Molina) is a professor of sorts who fancies himself more important than everyone else does.  His new wife Elena is several years his junior and is suffering from a case of extreme ennui.

We don’t have a lot of time to watch this pair of loves develop.  By the time the curtain rises both Vany and The Doctor are in full swing, so we have to jump on the wagon while it is moving.  Timing is everything.   And here it does not quite work.  It is not that folks are phoning in their parts.  It’s that there are a lot of words about love and that helpless feeling when you are in love’s free-fall, but there is little genuine evidence of same. 

There are no secret looks.  There are no body language gaffs.  There is only the sight of two men verbally swooning for one unavailable woman.  As for Elena, she is beautiful indeed, (and she wears the most extravagant and out of place gowns) but there is little else on display except for languish and frustration.    These are understandable for the character, but do not play well from an actor’s POV.

For those of you who need a refresher: Vanya and his niece Sonya (Alison Pill)  live on an estate/working farm (previously the location was Russia but that has been chucked out the window in this production and replaced with “the country”). They are eeking out a living and sending most of the income to Alexander, presumably because the property belonged to his second wife who has now passed on.  This is an odd element that is not challenged until the 11th hour.  Recently, things have not gone well in the city and Alexander has come to the farm for what he considers well deserved rest and with a proposition for the future in hand.  Wife #3 has accompanied him.  

That’s about it except for an addendum on the love theme.  While Vanya and The Doctor are obsessed with Elena, Sonya is pining for The Doctor and has been for years.  Oops.

So what we have here is a collection of people who are disappointed to the point of being annoying.  Chekhov has tossed them all together into one pot of luke warm water.  In addition, our Constitutional scholar Heidi Schreck has provided the cast and director with a new translation and script that does little to move the temperature in either direction. 

Harper as the Doctor is the one character who appears to have a pulse.  Steve Carrell has latched onto bewilderment as a state of being and never lets go.  Alfred Molina swans about in a self referential bubble and sports a British accent.  I know he IS British, but his chosen stage accent makes us wonder if there is a piece of information we all missed.   As a matter of fact this is the prevailing sentiment throughout.  Even the usually pitch perfect Jayne Houdyshell seems to be otherwise occupied when she is onstage. I don’t know what Ms. Neugebauer was after here.  Perhaps understatement was the theme.  If so, it went too far for this writer.

There were a few scenes that revealed sparks of life, all of which were two-handers.  These lifted all the boats enough to remind us that these people are complicated characters with universes all their own.  Would that there had been more of them. I always love me a little interstellar travel when I go to the theatre.

As it is the sparks don’t last long and once they are over we settle back into a feather-bed of the bland sort.    Except for the gunshot  – and the blocking on that was inexplicable.

UNCLE VANYA Steve Carell, Jonathan Hadary as Waffles, William Jackson Harper as Astrov, Jayne Houdyshell as Maria, Spencer Donovan Jones as Neighbor, Mia Katigbak as Marina, Alfred Molina as Alexander, Alison Pill as Sonia, and Anika Noni Rose as Elena.

Sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Lap Chi Chu and Elizabeth Harper, and sound by Mikhail Fiksel and Beth Lake.
At Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater through June 16.  Tickets HERE