Love has no dignity — no, not a shred — in the Sydney Theater Company’s glorious “Uncle Vanya,” which runs (and lopes and dances desperately) only through Saturday at City Center. In Tamas Ascher’s heart-bruising production, part of Lincoln Center Festival2012, people who reach out to touch someone are likely to find their balance in jeopardy. An attempted kiss can trip them up as effectively as any banana peel, while gentle caresses somehow turn into body slams that knock over their recipients like ninepins. Eros makes klutzes of us all, it seems, and no one is immune.
Surely, though, we can except that ravishing, patrician blonde, the one who seems sheathed in ice. You just know that she’ll keep her cool and stay on her feet, no matter how hot and bothered everybody else becomes. But no, goddess though she may be in the eyes of her admirers, Yelena, played by the Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett, is subject to the same brutal pull of mortal gravity as everyone else.
See how she falls. See how they all fall.
Mr. Ascher, a Hungarian director who has seldom worked in English before, has delivered what may be the most profoundly physical, and physically profound, interpretation ever of this 1897 play, which Chekhov disarmingly subtitled “scenes from provincial life.” Working with a cast that dares to spend most of its time onstage somewhere way out on a limb, Mr. Ascher solves the eternal Chekhov conundrum that often brings strong directors to their knees.
Are these bleak portraits of hope-starved lives meant to be farce or tragedy? Mr. Ascher’s version says, as persuasively and organically as any production I know, that the answer is both. Life is a tragedy because it’s so farcical. And like many of the characters onstage you may find yourself making noises that could mean you are laughing or crying. And you realize just how fine a line there is between the responses.
It was part of Chekhov’s genius to elicit this paradox from the environment where we feel both most comfortable, most trapped and most vulnerable: the place we call home. “Uncle Vanya” is an especially apt production for the dead of summer, the season when families hole up together in isolation. Such proximity is known to breed intimacy and irritation, and expose love and hate, in equal measures. Throw an exotic houseguest or two into the equation, the kind who rouses sleeping dogs and says what’s usually unspoken, and you’re at a dangerous tipping point.
That’s where the world of “Uncle Vanya” is poised when it begins. The pompous, gout-ridden professor Serebryakov (John Bell) has taken up residence with his much younger wife, Yelena (Ms. Blanchett), at the country estate overseen by Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), his daughter from an earlier marriage, and Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), his brother-in-law.
A tedium, verging on desolation, infuses this particular corner of provincial life. As designed by Zsolt Khell (set), Nick Schlieper (lighting) and Paul Charlier (sound), this home, which suggests a run-down dacha of the mid-20th century, is saturated in summer somnolence. The air is weighted with the drone of flies and muffled, scratchy music from an old record player or portable radio.
It’s the soggy, paralyzing atmosphere that often comes before a storm. Even talking seems like an effort, never mind actually moving. A festering annoyance seems to possess everyone onstage — including the dashing alcoholic doctor, Astrov (Hugo Weaving), who’s come to see the ailing professor, and Maria (Sandy Gore), Vanya’s bluestocking mother. Emotional explosions are only a provoking cough, yawn or misfired joke away.
“Uncle Vanya” has been adapted by Andrew Upton (Ms. Blanchett’s husband, and co-artistic director at the Sydney Theater Company) into a gritty, spontaneous-sounding vernacular. But the words, though they’re spoken with conviction by a uniformly brilliant cast that also includes Jacki Weaver as an ancient nanny and Anthony Phelan as a pathetic hanger-on, aren’t the most important elements. (This is fortunate, since the cast isn’t always as audible at City Center as it was when I saw this “Vanya” at the Kennedy Center in Washington a year ago. Some theatergoers may wish for supertitles. )
For while the characters talk a lot — about Chekhovian staples like the corrosive effects of time and jealousy and laziness — they rarely really listen to one another. When Astrov speaks about never being able to love anyone, Sonya, who adores him, doesn’t hear his words. She’s grinning, with a radiance that makes you want to weep, from the memory of a recent moment of companionable physical contact. Surely that clumsy hug offers reason to hope?
Moments of physical contact are almost always blundering here, as if people don’t know the rules for connecting, though you never doubt that connection is what they long for more than anything. An entire complex relationship is established through the ways in which Vanya and Yelena paw at each other in irritation and affection and (in Vanya’s case only) something like love.
And even when two people are unconditionally, magnetically attracted to each other — as Astrov and Yelena are — they don’t know what to do with their bodies. There has seldom been a clumsier, sadder or more fiercely passionate (not to mention acrobatic) kiss than the one shared by Ms. Blanchett and Mr. Weaving in the final scene.
That’s as close to any kind of consummation, of love or hopes or ideals, that “Uncle Vanya” allows. These people find comforting physical repose only when they become children again and seek solace in the lap of old, ever-accepting Marina, the nanny.
Otherwise they’re a jittery lot, at least when they shake off their ennui. They’re forever pacing, dancing, wrestling with the air, burying themselves under blankets, shooing one another away like flies. In this production there’s no question as to what stirs them into restlessness. It’s the presence of Yelena, whose pure physical exquisiteness inspires people to fantasize about a world less squalid.
The irrefutable fact of Ms. Blanchett’s uncommon loveliness has never been better used. I had never realized before how much “Vanya” is about the disruptiveness of sheer beauty. Clad in glacially chic ensembles that bring to mind Hitchcock heroines (Gyorgyi Szakacs is the costume designer), this Yelena suggests a Keatsian object of beauty, sufficient unto itself. Except that she’s human, which means that she’s awkward and ambivalent and falling all over those long legs of hers like a baby giraffe.
This Yelena, by the way, is one of the liveliest participants in the donnybrook that is the play’s climax, in which the weapons of choice include both a pistol and a bouquet of “sad, full” autumn roses. That scene is as rowdy and demented as anything out of a Marx Brothers movie and as unutterably despairing as a choral lament from Sophocles.
By Anton Chekhov, adapted by Andrew Upton; directed by Tamas Ascher; sets by Zsolt Khell; costumes by Gyorgyi Szakacs; lighting by Nick Schlieper; music and sound by Paul Charlier; dramaturge/interpreter, Anna Lengyel. A Sydney Theater Company production, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, Nigel Redden, director, in association with City Center. At City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan; (212) 721-6500, lincolncenterfestival.org. Through Saturday. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
WITH: John Bell (Serebryakov), Cate Blanchett (Yelena), Sandy Gore (Maria), Hayley McElhinney (Sonya), Anthony Phelan (Telegin), Richard Roxburgh (Vanya), Andrew Tighe (a Laborer), Jacki Weaver (Marina) and Hugo Weaving (Astrov).