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A ‘Vanya’ That Glows With Humor

Anyone who has ever doubted that a Chekhov play can be a categorical hoot should rush to see “Uncle Vanya” at the Met.

Originally workshopped by the Classical Theatre Lab, this “Vanya,” which played a limited engagement at the Actors’ Gang earlier this year, is simple, streamlined, stripped of all but the most essential technical rudiments. (Necessarily so, since the production shares the stage space with Circle X’s current offering, “An American Book of the Dead.”)

In the context of this bare-bones physical staging, director Bruce Katzman devotes his attention to pacing and nuance, bringing forth Chekhov’s evanescent humor with apparent effortlessness. There’s a trick, of course. In Chekhov, every line and gesture must be rooted in absolute psychological truth. Stress a laugh line, pander for tears, and the game is lost. The endangered aristocrats of Chekhov’s microcosm are best left capering in comical agony, like exotic butterflies dancing on the pins that will eventually impale them.

Katzman, who has taught Chekhov workshops from England to Argentina, understands the depths of dichotomy in Chekhov’s work, the effete earthiness and languid energy that must inform any successful interpretation. Fortunately, Katzman has assembled a near-perfect cast that attacks the play with both delicacy and rigor. What results is very much an actors’ production, no-frills and soul-satisfying.

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Vanya, played with urgent goofiness by Weston Blakesley, must cope with the skewering new knowledge that his former brother-in-law, Serebryakov (Orson Bean), is not the academic genius of his imaginings, but a neurasthenic poseur who has bled his late wife’s estate dry. To make matters worse, Vanya unrequitedly adores Yelyena (Elizabeth Karr), Serebryakov’s much younger wife. Meanwhile, Vanya’s physician friend Astrov (Kevin McCarty) simmers with lust for Yelyena, while Serebryakov’s plain-Jane daughter Sonya (Barbara Lee Bragg) adores the oblivious Astrov from afar.

And so the roundelay goes. The virile McCarty interacts with Karr’s fast-melting ice maiden to sizzling effect. Despite some line flubs, Bragg delivers a full-bodied Sonya, a far cry from the typical milquetoast interpretation.

An especially effective Bean plays his buffoonish character cut and dried and close to the bone--and is all the more hilarious for that. The cast includes Alexander Well, Nancy Jeris, Sara Shearer and Rob Kendt, all impressive in lesser roles.

F. Kathleen Foley

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“Uncle Vanya,” the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., L.A. Sundays, 7 p.m.; Mondays-Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 21. $15. (323) 957-1152. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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Archibald MacLeish’s ‘J.B.’ Gets a Striking Revival

Potent theatricality has always overridden the textual pretensions of “J.B.,” and so it proves in the current Buffalo Nights production. Though Archibald MacLeish’s 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning retelling of the Book of Job has nothing on King James, director Brian Kite and his exuberant company achieve considerable impact.

MacLeish’s verse drama utilizes a circus setting, placing two clowns (Gibson Frazier and Marco Sanchez) in the roles of God and Satan, who wreak havoc upon the title character (Michael Goorjian) in successive vignettes, interrupted by an off-stage prompter (voiced by Victor Garber) of metaphysical import.

Kite’s energetic staging is thankfully light-handed, deftly offsetting the author’s plummy excesses from interactive pre-show roustabouts (Jeff Maynard, Maury Sterling and Kevin Weisman) to the quietly hopeful finale.

Frazier’s Jehovah figure, mercurial rather than stentorian, is remarkable, recalling Roddy McDowall. As his opposite number, Sanchez is equally impressive in his droll, rational malevolence. Goorjian’s touching hero builds to a heart-rending, hollow-eyed climax.

Karen Tucker’s understated wife leads an estimable ensemble, with the various characterizations of Maynard, Sterling and Weisman almost stealing the show.

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The physical production is striking, with Kristen McCarron’s unit set, Kara McLeod’s witty costumes, Craig Pierce’s superb lighting and Craig Wolynez’s expert sound creating a surreal, Fellini-esque arena. Such integrity renders the inevitable post-9/11 analogies acute, and distinguishes this exceptional revival.

David C. Nichols

“J.B.,” Buffalo Nights Theatre Company at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends June 2. $18. (866) 633-6246. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

*

The Laughs Enrich ‘Divine Treasure’

Now a U.S. resident, Cuban-born playwright Raul de Cardenas taps into the vicissitudes of aging and the frustrations of assimilation in his cheerful but somewhat simple-minded comedy, “Divine Treasure of Youth” at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts.

The story revolves around Juan (Don Potter, alternating with Hecmar Lugo in the Spanish-speaking cast), an elderly Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. on a raft. Now living in Brooklyn with his son and his wife, Juan feels increasingly displaced when his grandson brings home his pregnant girlfriend, stretching their extended family to the breaking point. But when Juan moves to his other son’s apartment in Yonkers, he falls afoul of his demanding daughter-in-law, who eventually orders him out of the house.

Rejected by the local mission, Juan takes to the streets. But he doesn’t stay homeless long. Never mind that he is indigent and, as we learn, impotent as well. An attractive and financially independent widow soon offers him a warm heart and a bed.

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That falsely feel-good happy ending stretches believability to the breaking point. However, there are enough laughs and sheer energy in this good-natured play to compensate for the plot holes. Director Ernesto Miyares, who also translated the piece, goes for the obvious in his staging, and that’s mostly to the good. The slightly heightened delivery serves the comic rhythms well.

Antonio Nesme, who plays Juan’s twin sons, Kiko and Cuco, has the right style down cold, as does Goreti Da Silva (alternating with Ana Alfonso) as Juan’s comically affected daughter-in-law, Mireya. Diana De Barros is adorable as a pregnant teenager whose candid chatter about sex flabbergasts her Old World father-in-law-to-be.

The problem in the English-speaking production is Potter in his crucial comic role. Although pleasingly puckish, Potter stumbles over virtually every line, a nerve-racking experience for the audience, as it must be for his fellow performers. Potter’s all-too-obvious struggle, and the bag of actor’s tricks he employs as stalling devices, badly tarnish this “Treasure.”

F.K.F.

“Divine Treasure of Youth,” 421 N. Ave. 19, L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Alternate weekends in Spanish and English. Ends May 19. $23-$25. (323) 225-4044. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.


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