Chekhov on Mild Side


There’s a marvelous photograph of Anton Chekhov reprinted, among other places, on the cover of the “Portable Chekhov” short story collection. It shows him in his late 20s, lounging on his front porch with a dog in one hand and a walking stick in the other. No fuddy-duddy; no pince-nez or Great Russian Writer aura. He looks rakish--sexy, even.

Here is a man already beleaguered by family burdens and financial obligations, but with ambition in his eyes, not yet clouded by the consumption that killed him in 1904, at age 44. Here is someone who could have been Dr. Astrov, the charismatic country doctor of Chekhov’s own “Uncle Vanya.”

A disappointingly conventional 100th anniversary production of “Uncle Vanya” opened Thursday at the Geffen Playhouse. The cast hasn’t yet found the rhythm of this amazing and slippery play. Directors Michael Langham and Helen Burns get the basics down, but when all’s said and done, you wouldn’t mind asking them: So what do you think of this material?


That’s not to say directors should make facile judgments of the characters. Chekhov made no such judgments. He understood Astrov. Equally well he understood the hapless, pining, whining Vanya; Yelena, the woman both men can’t get out of their addled heads; and Yelena’s horrendous windbag of a husband, a retired academic and reason enough the Russian Revolution was only a matter of time.

Chekhov understood a lot of things, which is about the most obvious thing you can say about a great writer. This one’s peculiar greatness lies in the offbeat, the small talk that goes on a little too long, the flailing act of desperation that goes relatively unnoticed.

Around the time he was photographed with the cane and the dog, Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander about living with his dependent family--”adults gathered together under one roof only because, by force of certain inexplicable circumstances, they cannot go their several ways.” All his plays, including “The Wood Demon,” the earlier version of “Uncle Vanya,” operate on this simple premise. A comedy, as an exasperated Chekhov reminded people throughout his life, “Uncle Vanya” is a near-plotless collection of “scenes from country life,” as he subtitled it. A bunch of relations and hangers-on drive one another and themselves crazy for a few months. That’s all. Yet the sexual longing amid all that torpor thickens the air. It makes people act funny.

The Geffen production brings out only some of this. It’s mildly amusing and mildly moving. Robert Foxworth plays Vanya, and he’s the most rewarding element. In the 1997 Lincoln Center Theatre production of Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” Foxworth was nothing less than revelatory. Playing an old crank freed him up, and he gave his character a streak of irritable wit. Here, he’s impressive in related ways. This Vanya is foolish, but resonantly so. It helps that Foxworth could as easily play the more dashing Astrov (Stephen Pelinski, only OK). Foxworth’s leading-man chops, here in the service of a chopped-up and worn-down character, makes Vanya’s crush on Yelena (Christina Haag, solid and crush worthy, if overly earnest for this languid flirt) quite moving.

As in the Geffen’s recent “Hedda Gabler,” there’s a hands-off quality to the staging. Much of the humor’s slighted; paradoxically, certain performances--Megan Follows’ Sonya, for example--go straight for the obvious. (At one point Follows mouths the words “oh, my God!” when she thinks Astrov’s going to propose.) Peter Donat’s professor is a ham actor’s version of a ham actor playing a ham professor. In the supporting ranks, Fred Applegate stands out as “Pockles” (Waffles in most translations). In the late-night drinking scene dominated by Vanya and Astrov, Applegate sings a bar or two of a Russian lament, and he’s more moving than anyone or anything else in the show.

There’s no one way to bring this elusive, allusive universe to life. All the same, Louis Malle’s film version of the play, “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994), made a lot of people realize how funny and delicate Chekhov can be--if you go easy on it, while somehow also embracing its emotional extremes.

“It was hard work, and we had to dig deeply into our hearts,” said Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s wife, who originated the role of Yelena. This “Uncle Vanya” gives the material a competent once-over, which isn’t enough.

* “Uncle Vanya,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. (at Westwood Boulevard), Westwood. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (also 2 p.m. Oct. 20). Ends Oct. 31. $20-$42. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Gloria Dorson: Marina

Stephen Pelinski: Astrov

Robert Foxworth: Vanya

Fred Applegate: Pockles

Peter Donat: Serebryakov

Megan Follows: Sonya

Christina Haag: Yelena

Michael Rothhaar: Workman/Watchman

Anne Gee Byrd: Marya

Written by Anton Chekhov. Translated by Vanessa Burnham. Directed by Michael Langham and Helen Burns. Set and lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis. Costumes by Robert Blackman. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins.