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May 12, 2024
The Office Meets Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya
Photo by Marc J. Franklin

The revision of “Uncle Vanya” at Lincoln Center is notable for two reasons. One is that it has been modernized by Heidi Schreck (“What the Constitution Means to Me”) making it more relatable to the audience. More significantly, the show marks the Broadway debut of actor Steve Carell (“The Office,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”)

Although Carell has the title role, it’s not the central role. Vanya expresses the ennui and discontent of many of the characters, but he often seems somewhat in the background. He and his niece Sonya (well-played by Alison Pill) have cared for her father’s estate together for many years, an estate that belongs to Alexander (Alfred Molina) through the death of his deceased wife. He uses the proceeds to maintain his urban lifestyle and has married the younger, glamorous Elena (beautiful Anika Noni Rose.)

Life on the estate is very predictable and mundane for Vanya, Sonya and the others, including his mother ( Jayne Houdyshell,) Waffles (Jonathan Hadary,) and Marina, the housekeeper (Mia Katigbak). The occasional visit from Astrov, the local doctor (a dynamic William Jackson Harper) breaks the routine.

But when Alexander and Elena move to the estate, their visit upsets the equilibrium.

The show is slow and the first act seems to have long pauses. Carell, a particular fan favorite, gets a lot of laughs but, quite frankly, I felt that many in the audience were reacting to Michael from “The Office,” not Vanya from the estate.

Houdyshell, a wonderful actress, is totally wasted in the play. She has few lines and does little. Hadary, a charming performer and character, has one brief speech at the beginning when discussing fidelity, he explains that his wife left him the day after their marriage.

Astrov is interesting and passionate about his work and his trees. Later both he and Vanya fall in love with Elena but the doctor displays his passion as he pursues her. Unfortunately, Sonya is in love with him, but sadly, he barely notices her. Harper is the one character who seems to have spark. He is energetic and enthusiastic. He also introduces a conservation theme, and his passion for the environment seems timely today.

Sonya continues to work while Vanya smitten by Elena’s beauty, languishes as he tries to convince her to leave her husband. Yet he does it somewhat passively and Carell sometimes sounds whiny.

Rose has little to do but be attractive. She doesn't actively encourage the men but she doesn’t stop them either. Rose wears form-fitting dresses in vibrant colors that contrast with Sonya’s drab clothing.

Finally towards the end, Alexander announces his intention to sell the estate and invest the proceeds for himself and his wife. He’s the one character who seems stuck in the 1890’s when Chekhov originally wrote the play. Molina’s Alexander is pompous and self-absorbed. He is oblivious to the others and so is surprised at their reaction to news of the impending sale.

Despite the star-studded cast, the revision, and good direction by Lila Neuberger, “Uncle Vanya” seems as dull as some of the characters’ lives. A few bright, funny moments and Harper’s performance break the tedium but they pass quickly. The comments about conservation are relevant and timely but they are as not central to the theme as are the interactions of the characters. Chekhov dealt with relationships and emotions in his works.

The play is the story of unrequited love, jealousy, boredom and complex relationships. By the end the characters seem to be back where they started. They will return to their boring lives after the final curtain falls and probably not be upset about it.

Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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