Fall has come and all of New York’s institutions are waking from their summer slumber, including the Pearl Theatre, the best revival company in the city. They are opening their 2014-15 season with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a chronicle of old, disappointed Russians who have been doing nothing but “talking and talking for the last fifty years.” The eponymous Vanya (Chris Mixon) has spent a quarter century running his family’s estate with his niece, Sónya (Michelle Beck), in order to support his brother-in-law, the pedantic and unsuccessful professor Alexánder Serebriakóv (Dominic Cuskern). But when Serebriakóv retires and moves in with his new wife, Yeléna (Rachel Botchan), the static melancholy of the household is transformed into hectic misery. Yeléna’s beauty enraptures Vanya as well as the local doctor, Mikhaíl Lvóvich Ástrov (Bradford Cover), who Sónya has been pining after for years. Serebriakóv, meanwhile, is entirely oblivious to these romantic struggles, and he instead spends all day in his room reading and writing about art, occasionally appearing to make tyrannical demands—for example, that dinner should be served after 6pm instead of 1pm. Before the final curtain, vodka is consumed by the gallon and pathetic, long-winded monologues triumph over any real action. In fact, when a gun finally does go off, it ends not with death or even injury, but with the shooter collapsing in self-pitying tears.
Which is perhaps why Chekhov can seem insufferable to modern audiences and why it is so important to emphasize his black sense of humor—this is a playwright much closer in sensibility to Beckett than to Shakespeare. When Yeléna remarks that the weather is lovely, then, and Vanya replies, “Lovely weather for hanging yourself,” we shouldn’t be groaning but laughing at his narcissistic depression. This is where director Hal Brooks really succeeds; he doesn’t expect us to like any of these characters, to take their trysts seriously, but he does make them endearing and comical. His actors, too, perfectly embody their weary, Russian resignation to life, only once or twice waking up to take a stab at living. “Wouldn’t you rather have a younger husband?” Sónya asks Yeléna, who replies, “What a child you are!” as if the question of want could have any relevance in the life of an adult.
Still, with the notable exception of The Seagull, Chekhov had a tendency in his major plays to write overlong endings, final scenes where all his characters sit around rehashing what has come before. This can prove a little exhausting, and even an excellent production will have trouble overcoming the stultifying last act of Vanya. Revival theaters don’t get better than their Pearl, but occasionally their selections do.