There are so many inspired moments in Austin Pendleton's staging of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that it's a pity the lively but uneven production contains nearly as many false notes. Denis O'Hare turns out to be a terrific choice for the leading role, ably bringing out Vanya's sense of humor and penchant for self-pity and melancholy. In the role of the equally lovelorn Sofya, Mamie Gummer gives a richly layered portrait of a deeply disappointed, lonely young woman who may never find love. When O'Hare and Gummer take the time to express their characters' unrequited loves, their dashed hopes are heartbreaking.
In too many scenes, though, Pendleton doesn't let the actors have quiet scenes in which they sit or stand while contemplating their unpromising future in a fast-changing Russia. Instead he has the actors move in and out-and up and down the stairs-of the two-story set designed by Santo Loquasto. With the exception of the elderly family servant Waffles (Louis Zorich) and Vanya's cold, detached mother Maria (Delphi Harrington), most of the characters hardly ever sit still for long.
Sofya follows the local doctor Astrov (Peter Sarsgaard) around the house like a lovesick puppy. Unfortunately for Sofya, Astrov pays her painfully little attention. He tries showing off for the pretty Yelena (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who does find him attractive. But Yelena is married to the much older retired professor Aleksandr (George Morfogen) and doesn't want to start a messy affair with Astrov. And even though she knows Vanya loves her, Yelena repeatedly says they're just good friends. Perhaps the frequent running around makes sense since most of the characters are restless and dissatisfied. But Pendleton orchestrates manic goings-on too often. Vanya, filled with despair, should be less antic and more brooding and Yelena-whom Vanya describes as "reeling with idleness" -ought to sit in a chair once in a while.
Although the physical activity does energize the production, the tradeoff is that there aren't enough quiet scenes that would allow the actors to sink into the characters and let us observe their largely unhappy lives in less hysterical moments.
On the plus side, Pendleton makes all the dynamics between the characters crystal clear, thanks in part to Carol Rocamora's straightforward and accessible translation. And perhaps because he has played Vanya himself, Pendleton has helped O'Hare give one of the smartest and funniest performances of his career. The actor needs to rein in some of his snappy line readings so he doesn't sound like a Chekhovian stand-up comic, but overall O'Hare is a joy to watch.
Gummer has accumulated a number of New York stage credits in recent years, but her performance as Sofya is her most assured to date. Her longing for Astrov is palpable, making it even more crushing when he barely notices her. Gyllenhaal looks elegant in Suzy Benzinger's costumes, making it easy to understand why Vanya and Astrov can't resist her. Sarsgaard (who lives with Gyllenhaal offstage and recently acted opposite Kristin Scott Thomas in The Seagull) is suitably passionate when Astrov talks about saving the forests. At other times, though, his Astrov isn't as charismatic as he should be. The rest of the cast does solid work, particularly Harrington's unfeeling Maria and Morfogen's self-centered Aleksandr.
It's a technically impressive production, with handsome lighting by Jason Lyons and evocative sound by Ryan Rumery and Daniel Baker. Loquasto's detailed set lays out both the interior and exterior of the country house, but it looks too big in the intim