THE BLOG
09/21/2014 11:38 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2014

First Nighter: 'Uncle Vanya' Misfires in More Ways Than One

During the intermission after the first uneven two acts of the Pearl Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya revival, I remarked to my astonished but extremely tolerant friend that Anton Chekhov's writing shines through no matter what is done to it.

When the production--using Paul Schmidt's somewhat colloquial translation--had ended, I took it back. I admitted to my wide-eyed companion that even deathless material can be consigned to a premature grave. Director Hal Brooks had just done it, especially having allowed the master playwright's third act to disintegrate shockingly into 19th-century American melodrama.

Before I rant on--perhaps feeling the after-effects of the unnecessary but prevalent ranting that distinguishes (well, not distinguishes) Brooks' mounting--I should note that several actors maintain their thespian dignity in the account of what happens on the few days life becomes unbearable for too many of a troubled Russian country estate's inhabitants and visitors.

In a work where "boring" and "nothing" are regularly repeated words, Bradford Cover makes poignantly three-dimensional Astrov's medical disillusion as well as his infatuation with the languorous Yelena (Rachel Botchan) and his complete obliviousness to adoration from the hard-working Sonya (Michelle Beck). As the self-impressed, obtuse Alexander Serebriakov, Dominic Cuskern is thoroughly convincing portraying the peacock intellectual. Robin Leslie Brown's family nurse Marina does the requisite soliciting and comforting with ease, and Brad Heberlee's characterization of the nervous, guitar-strumming Waffles is also right.

Ordinarily, performances that land as these do would be a testament to the director's acumen. But when three other focal turns are as wide of the mark as they are at times, a spectator begins to wonder whether the effective performers had been left to their own devices.

Beck's Sonya is a hit-and-miss affair. Sometimes her matter-of-fact manner intended to suggest an uncertain young woman in love but knowing her feelings will go unrequited is exactly what the script requires. Then there are over-the-top bursts of joy that the thoughtful, defeated Sonya would never give into when others, some of them sleeping, might hear her.

Chris Mixon's Vanya is an outright disappointment. In act one, he presents the hard working, unappreciated man as white-hot angry. It's a feasible approach--was it Mixon's idea, Brooks', a duo decision?--but that's where this Vanya remains through the other three acts. Before too long, and certainly after the humiliating third-act gun development, the red-faced screaming and whinging have run out of steam for the audience, if not for Mixon.

(Why is it that anger and frustration are so often shown on stage as loud attributes rather then as they often emerge: white-hot near-silence?)

Just as disturbing in this Uncle Vanya is Botchan's Yelena. Perhaps in this instance, it's not so much a question of acting as it is of blatant miscasting. Referring to a woman's age is still a dubious sally in the post-feminist age, but not so when a script is as explicit as Uncle Vanya is on the subject. Yelena is Professor Serebriakov's much younger wife, but when this couple together, the disparity is totally missing.

Maybe the Botchan's diffidence--as opposed to the character's diffidence--that adversely affects what she does is an indication she knows she's wrong for the role and therefore can't fully give herself over to it. (Let it be noted that Botchan is company artistic director Brooks' wife.)

For the record, Barbara A Bell's costumes are appropriate. On the other hand, the Jason Simms set can often be confusing. Though the first act supposedly takes place outdoors, and the projected landscape with tree underlines that, why is a formal dining table placed next to a swing? When Marina comes through calling chickens, the audience is momentarily confused as to what the dickens is going on. Has the brood been let loose in the house?

But it's Brooks' confusion that upends this Uncle Vanya. When Vanya takes after the Professor with the pistol, he misses his shocked target not once but twice. Just know that this Uncle Vanya around, the eponymous character isn't the only one who misses his aim.