It has long been evident that American actors can be as good or better at doing the classics than British ones. But it has just as long been evident that there is little joy or profit in that contest. With tonight's "Great Performances" presentation of an Anglo-American "Uncle Vanya" (9-11 p.m. on Channels 15 and 24, 9:30-midnight on Channel 28), we can take solace in the seamless use made of good acting that hails from both sides of the Atlantic.
Lincoln Center artistic director Gregory Mosher has staged this eminently stageworthy adaptation by David Mamet. It is a plain-Jane "Vanya" that offers no furbelows and no penetrating new insights. It is not in the league of the esoteric Eimuntas Nekrosius "Vanya" that played Houston and Chicago in 1988, and not even as consistently lucid as Jack O'Brien's 1990 production at the Old Globe.
It is, however, a "Vanya" that blossoms as it unfolds, thanks to British actor Ian Holm's rich portrayal of Dr. Astrov, two fine performances by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Rebecca Pidgeon as the beautiful Yelena and the unhappy Sofya (pronounced Sonya), respectively--and a Vanya from David Warner that starts out petulant, but grows and grows.
The problems, other than Mosher's straightforward take, lie in his decision to photograph the play as a series of close-ups. These turn inward, becoming limiting rather than illuminating. We never once see the estate. We don't even see an entire room. This robs us of an important sense of place and climate. We need to feel the oppressive heat that exacerbates the aimlessness and the boredom.
A few summer insects, a hand-held fan for Yelena, might have suggested the sultriness, but atmosphere never quite materializes. The production's strength lies in its actors, most prominently the layered complexity of Holm's distanced Astrov--his alcoholic, self-appraising ruminations, the coiled intensity of his feelings for Yelena, his icy dismissal of Sofya's love.
Warner's desperation as Vanya takes some time to peak, but the final scenes are eventually satisfying, matching in runaway anger Sofya's irritating determination to resign herself to her fate.
Pidgeon, who is not nearly plain enough for the role, manages to give this tormented woman presence and dimension. She's a worthy antagonist, and later friend, for the elegant Yelena, played with disarming simplicity and a kind of innocence by Mastrantonio.
The performances don't entirely offset the production's other minor deficiencies (supporting roles are adequately rendered), but lovers of Chekhov should not be displeased. And Holm alone is well worth tuning in for.
"Uncle Vanya" also airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50.