Russian Dress-Up For Uncle Vanya and Leah’s Train


When Maxim Gorky witnessed a production of Uncle Vanya in 1898, he wrote to Chekhov: “[I] wept like a female, though I’m far from being a nervous type. I went home stupefied, shattered by your play. . . . [It is] a hammer you use to beat on the empty pate of the public.” At a Sunday matinee of the Classic Stage Company’s Uncle Vanya, I did not weep, like a female or otherwise. (And I am a nervous type.) Nor did I experience stupefaction, shattering, or even a headache from that hammer. One can attribute this to the inevitable progress of the avant-garde—after 100 years, all but the most innovative techniques grow familiar. But here, the dry eyes owe largely to Austin Pendleton’s singularly lax production.

Chekhov’s play concerns an uncle, Vanya, and niece, Sonya, cheerfully moldering on a country estate. When Sonya’s father arrives with Yelena, his languorous second wife, the household veers toward dissolution. Pendleton has directed these “scenes of a country life” many times and acted the title role as often. Perhaps he couldn’t summon the interest to do it again. In a New York Times article on the casting of real-life paramours Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard as Yelena and her lover, Astrov, Pendleton commented, “I’m not going to tell two people who live together how to work out a physical seduction. That’s just ridiculous.” Ridiculous or not, he seems to have adopted a largely hands-off attitude. Disregarding the internal rhythms of the acts, he lets some scenes unfurl at a jolly trot and others at a lugubrious crawl. He stages certain moments with great specificity and others with lassitude and haze. Significantly, he neglected to inform designer Santo Loquasto that his attractive two-tiered set—a loft with ample supporting beams—doesn’t work in the CSC space. It crowds the stage, and the beams block sightlines.

This directorial deficiency leaves the actors indulged and adrift. Few would dispute the considerable talents of Gyllenhaal, Sarsgaard, and Denis O’Hare (who plays Vanya), but none of them gives a fully realized performance. There is some excitement in this—one can see the cast testing out new modes and means from scene to scene. But it isn’t satisfying. Gyllenhaal, a seductive Yelena, snubs the character’s less attractive aspects. Sarsgaard invests his louche Astrov with too much hip swivel and too little elocution. O’Hare is perhaps nervous that his co-stars are running off with the play (they are, another imbalance Pendleton might have corrected), and actually takes to gnawing Loquasto’s scenery. Relative newcomer Mamie Gummer, as the anguished Sonya, is an actress of enviable emotional access, yet she seems confused about how to fix her feelings to her lines: “What suffering!” she cries in the third act. “I have no hope, none, none at all!” Is there a director in the house?

Suffering Russians, a compartment full, also appear in Leah’s Train, Karen Hartman’s play produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company. The show concerns a mother (Mia Katigbak), a daughter (Jennifer Ikeda), and their émigré ancestor, Leah. The piece begins in the present, just after Leah’s funeral, then reaches into the past to chart her heroic journey on the Russian rails, and later moves to a magical-realist space onboard an Amtrak train, where all the characters intermingle.

It’s a puzzling, affecting script, which director Jean Randich and the actors never really make sense of. They and the playwright might have worked harder to locate the scenes and delineate the characters before the stories and timescapes collide. Or they could at least have provided a bar car.