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Theater Review: Friel gives Chekhov’s ‘Vanya’ an Irish touch

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

UNCLE VANYA, by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Brian Friel. Directed by Ben Barnes. Performed by the Gate Theatre Dublin. Featuring Niall Buggy, John Kavanagh, Donna Dent, and Susannah Harker. At LaGuardia Drama Theater, Amsterdam Avenue and 65th Street, NYC. Through Sunday, July 18.

The Gate Theatre Dublin production of Brian Friel’s efficient, clean-limbed adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," arguably the greatest of the Russian dramatist’s four major full-length plays, doesn’t really find its feet and get its bearings until after the intermission that separates the first two acts from the pair that bring this autumnal, heart-breaking work to a close.

Director Ben Barnes’s thoughtful, carefully cast production begins too cautiously, as though establishing the languorous late summer mood of a slightly seedy provincial estate late in the 19th century were more important than telling the story for which Chekhov had created several of his most subtle and complicated characters.

"Uncle Vanya," at base, is a play in which almost all of the major characters view their lives and themselves as tedious and uneventful, and its very palpable magic lies in the manner in which the dominant half-dozen figures impact on one another, alternatingly damaging and sustaining their lives and their illusions.

One built-in trap in any "Vanya" production is the risk of letting the play’s gentle tensions slip away in the first few scenes, while the precise quality of life in the Serebryakov estate is being locked in and underscored as subtly as possible.

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Barnes, rumored to be the next artistic director of the Abbey, has assembled a cast made up, for the most part, of the finest actors on the Irish stage, working in a new text by the country’s most admired and longest-established living playwright, a man who is often referred to as "the Irish Chekhov" because of the depth and richness of his character writing.

The production, which played its first preview performance last October as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, has come to New York for a 14-performance run as part of Lincoln Center’s Festival 99. "Uncle Vanya" is one of three plays, two from the Gate and one from the Abbey, imported as a tribute to Brian Friel on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

The Gate’s "Uncle Vanya" boasts Niall Buggy in the title role and John Kavanagh as Astrov, the country doctor who was an obvious self-portrait on the part of the medically trained Chekhov. Sonya, the daughter of Vanya’s deceased sister, is played by the vibrant Donna Dent, while Elena, the indolent, indulged second wife of Sonya’s father, is beautifully rendered by Susannah Harker, the sole Briton in the Gate’s strong cast.

T.P. McKenna and Eamon Morrissey, both long-standing Dublin favorites, are seen here as, respectively, Sonya’s father, a retired art history professor of rich tastes and little ability, and Telegin, an impoverished landowner, by now a more or less permanent functionary of the estate.

Ann Rowan is Maria, the hearing-impaired mother of Vanya, while Daphne Carroll provides a particularly strong cameo as Marina, the family’s nurse, now having slipped into old age.

David Gaucher’s set provides a vast parquet floor of richly polished wood, which, with the addition or subtraction of a few pieces of furniture, serves as a dining room, a garden, a gallery, and, finally, Vanya’s study, in which the romantically disappointed Sonya and her uncle oversee the petty affairs of the disintegrating property.

Surrounding the thrust stage of the LaGuardia Drama Theater is a tall, overripe stand of what appears to be summer wheat, with still more of the stuff visible in the background when the three doors in the upstage wall are allowed to stand open.

The "Uncle Vanya" characters make their entrances and exits through paths in the waving grain, much as the people of the Broadway staging of Friel’s "Dancing at Lughnasa" came and went through masses of the wildflowers which served as the production’s symbolic signature.

While Friel’s work on "A Month in the Country" seemed keyed to infusing the life on that play’s country property with as much "Irishness" as possible, the playwright appears to have exercised a more restrained hand with "Uncle Vanya." Trugenev’s landowners listened to the Nocturnes of Dublin-born John Field on their offstage plane and read Tipperary native Laurence Sterne’s "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" aloud to one another, even when the listeners, in their boredom, don’t manifest much interest.

Friel’s changes in "Uncle Vanya" appear to have centered on two of the supporting characters, Maria, Vanya’s imperious old grandmother, and Telegin, the unlucky neighbor more commonly known as "Waffles," because of his mottled complexion.

In the Chekhovian original, Maria is a French-speaking rural snob who toadies to her son-in-law, the professor, because he, like many Russians of the period, finds the language of France superior in subtlety and sophistication to that of their own nation.

Now, the old woman is never referred to as "Maman," as in most versions, nor is there any reference to the French language. Instead Maria is pictured as a borderline revolutionary and believer in the rights of women.

As for "Waffles," he seems to be in the play a good deal more than is usually the case, but this may have something to do with the expert performance actor Morrissey is giving.

Good as they are, even in the production’s subdued first few scenes, Buggy’s Vanya and Kavanagh’s Astrov really catch fire after the interval, with the love both men feel for the languorous Elena of the sleek, beautiful Harker comes fully into focus.

Harker’s Elena has an edge seldom associated with the character. She’s clearly an educated woman trapped in a bad marriage, an individual who appears to be watching, catlike for any suggestion of an opportunity to make a move and improve her situation.

Dent, who will also be in the cast of Friel’s "Aristocrats," opening a 6-performance run on July 21, is an unusually eloquent Sonya, much less muffled and suppressed-seeming than most interpretations of the role. An unusually energized Sonya, Dent brings welcome clarity and snap to every scene in which she appears.

McKenna’s shallow professor the villain of the work, self-indulgent and selfish, packs sufficient punch to be able to stand as a real threat to Vanya’s lean future as he suggests a plan to dispose of the land and move to the city with his languorous young second wife.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, a four-play Friel salute, utilizing both the Abbey Theatre mainstage and its smaller space, the Peacock, continues through Aug. 7, following an ambitious exhibition, "Brian Friel — A Celebration," which ran at the National Library from May 6 through July 10.

Here in New York, the playwright’s latest work, "Give Me Your Answer Do," already seen in London and Dublin, will begin preview performances at the Roundabout Theatre Company on Sept. 10.

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