Four years ago in the Guardian, playwright Simon Stephens called his translation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic a failure. “I haven’t captured the breadth of the play or its truth or comedy or sexiness,” he admitted. “Nobody could have. No matter how brilliant their Russian. No matter how masterful their stagecraft. The nature of translation means that to think otherwise is folly.”
How then am I, completely ignorant of Cyrillic script and Slavic roots, to judge the newly formed Hunter Theater Project’s Uncle Vanya, a joint effort by playwright-director Richard Nelson and the esteemed translator couple Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky? Well, this was the first Vanya that brought me to tears and made me laugh in places I never had before. Something of the original must be getting through.
Credit must also go to a fine cast and the extraordinarily intimate mise en scène that Nelson has been perfecting for eight years with his “Apple Family” tetralogy and “Gabriels” trilogy. Marked by rigorously realistic, low-key performances and scrupulous attention to humdrum business – usually in a kitchen or around a dinner table – these exercises in real-time, granular naturalism create a tight bond between audience and actors: We really are flies on the fourth wall.
And the approach works beautifully for Chekhov’s 1898 “scenes from country life,” in which the title character (Jay O. Sanders), a middle-aged farm manager who has devoted his life to raising money for his late sister’s wife, a professor (Jon DeVries), has a messy emotional breakdown. That’s simplifying the plot. There’s also the professor’s beautiful, much younger wife, Eléna (Celeste Arias), after whom Ványa pines; Ványa’s plain, devout niece, Sónya (Yvonne Woods); and his only friend in the village, Mikhail Ástrov (Jesse Pennington), a boozy doctor with a fondness for environmental causes. These “misfits,” as Ástrov calls himself and others, inhabit a country estate over a few days one summer, drinking too much, declaring love for each other, bickering, even threatening murder, which, as with much in Chekhov, turns into farce.
This might be a good place to bring up the ages-old argument about Chekhov and laughter: How funny should these plays be? He called them comedies, and Stanislavsky’s memoirs record that Chekhov would often giggle at strange moments, as if the minutiae of human existence were enough to tickle the great writer. But The Seagull, Three Sisters and others are tragedies of the human spirit as well. So what’s the right balance? What I found revelatory about this production – with its un-showy acting and vocal delivery that almost strays into mumbling – was that the line between pathos and silliness, gravity and giddiness, was blown away. When we watch real, unscripted life (or an artful approximation of it), humor and heartbreak can switch places in the blink of an eye. Nelson, bless his heart, solved the Chekhovian riddle.
He could not have done it without this powerhouse of a cast. I’ve seen many Ványas in my time, live and on film: Wallace Shawn, Simon Russell Beale, Reed Birney, Denis O’Hare, Peter Dinklage. Each brought shades of weakness, intelligence, bitterness and pusillanimity to the role. But in Sanders I found a Ványa who actually looks like he could chop wood and haul bales of hay. With his ploughman’s physique and great, rumbling bass-baritone, Sanders is the most masculine Ványa I’ve seen, but in the climactic third-act breakdown, with his heart broken and his home threatened, Sanders crumples into a figure of intense pathos, blubbering and stammering like a lost boy. He’s a child who never matured, yet finds himself stuck in a lumbering frame. Even if you don’t care for the studied plainness of the translation, or the hyper-realistic staging, this version is worth seeing for the eruption of anger and frustration that Sanders unleashes, shattering the relative quiet of the play up to that point.
I don’t want to fixate on just one actor. The entire ensemble does excellent work. DeVries will make you worry for the professor, usually an irritating, selfish duffer. Woods’ Sónya shows a feisty, sharp-elbowed independence I found refreshing. Arias exudes worldly ennui that belies her youth. And Pennington takes a big risk with a mannered Ástrov who seems to always be squinting into the sun after sucking on a lemon. It sounds like I’m mocking, but the eccentric characterization won me over.
Bravo to producer Gregory Mosher and his team for inaugurating a new model of theatergoing at Hunter College with this achingly sensitive revival. Who knows what a “successful” translation is, but it must have something to do with hearing old things sound shockingly new.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.