Pro & Con Artists

If Stroman's work were more physically specific, Bierko and everyone else would have an easier time of it. But my impression is that she tends to generalize except when she finds a prop gimmick like the tableware in the restaurant scene of Contact. Her numbers are lively, but not differentiated enough, or connected to their songs exactingly enough, to clinch the deal; the shortfall is especially noticeable in "Marian the Librarian," which was Onna White's masterpiece in the original, with its lines of people, noses buried in books, tiptoeing through the stacks. Stroman's version, bouncy and acrobatic enough, is just a dance that happens to take place in a library.

Still, Stroman's work overall is noninvasive; she lets the book and score work their old charm, while her company at its best adds a new pleasantness. At worst, you go away thinking that she meant well and that they did these things better in the old days. This, trust me, is a good deal more appealing than the thoughts you might have in your head coming from the Roundabout revival of Uncle Vanya. What's that line in The Music Man about getting the beefsteak pounded? You can't; director Michael Mayer borrowed the kitchen mallet, and he's made his cast use it on every line of Chekhov's tragicomedy. I've never seen a production of Vanya where the story was so easy to grasp and its emotional effect so wholly absent. Chekhov enjoyed putting his characters alternately in tragic and comic perspective, but he certainly never meant you to sit through four long acts watching them without an ounce of empathy.

Vanya is subtitled (though not in this version) "Scenes of Country Life," and the rural estate where it takes place is both a source of the characters' frustration and an atmospheric clue. Everything happens slower and a little more crudely than in the city; the equation of the country with certain kinds of low farce is carefully exploited, for decidedly unfarcical purposes. In the country, people throw off their city poses and reveal themselves, yet everyone in the play is a kind of con artist. Their tragedy—and comedy—is that they delude themselves most of all. Astrov knows that Yelena's a useless and shallow person, but succumbs to her anyway; intending to resist him as easily as she has Vanya, Yelena is too bored—even with Sonya's interests at heart—to do anything but lure Astrov on. Every situation in the play is like that: No one means any ill will, but everyone's miserable, and only unpleasant or unfortunate things happen, till the uneasy household is broken up.

Rebecca Luker in The Music Man: 1912 overtures
photo: Joan Marcus
Rebecca Luker in The Music Man: 1912 overtures

Details

The Music Man
By Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Neil Simon Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-307-4100

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov, translated by Mike Poulton
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street 212-307-4100

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Shouty and one-dimensional in its playing, Mayer's production is oddly schizoid in its elements: Half the house, in Tony Walton's odd set, looks like a decaying clapboard mansion, the other half like a gigantic log cabin. The country people are all hopped-up and frantic, the city slickers sluggish. Despite the hot weather, Walton puts the country gentlemen in three-piece suits. The men, largely British, tend to base their roles on the nearest model in classical English theater: Brian Murray's Serebryakov is a dyspeptic Sir Peter Teazle, Derek Jacobi's Vanya an exceptionally loutish Hamlet. (Maybe he thinks he's playing Ivanov, who has some links to Hamlet.) Roger Rees's nerve-wracked Astrov, on the other hand, suggests an overworked corporate veep, while Laura Linney's Yelena is pure farm wife, and Rita Gam must be planning to take over as The Music Man's Mrs. Shinn. Amy Ryan's Sonya, often quite moving, and Anne Pitoniak's simple, assured Marina are the only two people onstage who actually seem to belong in a farmhouse. And even they have to speak Mike Poulton's mishmash of an adaptation, which makes elderly, illiterate servants refer to "the ravages of time." Why does the Roundabout need to drag actors and scripts from London, when New York is full of artists who are Russian-born, Russian-speaking, or of Russian ancestry? Did Nazimova, Ouspenskaya, Michael Chekhov work and teach here for nothing? Of all the world's theater traditions, the Chekhovian is surely the one we least need to borrow.

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