Review: Steve Carell as the fifty-year-old loser in the comic “Uncle Vanya”

Why is he called “Uncle Vanya”? All man does is mope, mope harder, try to do something other than mope, fail miserably, and mope some more.

You can’t blame him. Vanya has spent much of his nearly fifty years eking out meager profits from a provincial estate, and not even for himself. The money he earns running the farm with his unmarried niece goes to support the city life of his fatuous, gouty ex-brother-in-law, an art professor who “knows nothing about art.” Furthermore, Vanya is hopelessly in love with the old man’s exquisitely languid young wife, who, quite reasonably, finds the moper pathetic.

In short, he is the opposite of the bold, laudable characters that most writers of the late 1890s called a play. This is probably exactly why Chekhov did it, heralding a new kind of protagonist for a new kind of drama. His life having in his experience become squalid and absurd, he could no longer portray it for the public as heroic. So how could its protagonist be a hero?

“Uncle Vanya,” which opened Wednesday at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, its 10th Broadway revival in 100 years, takes Chekhov’s epochal gamble and revives it. If Vanya isn’t exactly a hero in this entertaining but rarely touching production, it’s because he’s no one at all. He despairs and disappears.

That would seem like a neat trick, given that he stars Steve Carell, the star of “The Office” and, perhaps more relevantly, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Carell’s Vanya imports from those appearances the excessive impatience that makes you roll your eyes while also worrying about her mental health. She makes jokes that aren’t. She gets excited about all the wrong things. Rain coming? He called It.

Without a camera trained on a man like that, you quickly learn to ignore him, as you would in real life. Indeed, in Lila Neugebauer’s elegant and lucid staging, Vanya is barely noticed even when she makes her first entrance, hidden behind a bench. When he speaks he doesn’t pay much more attention; in Heidi Schreck’s new fluid, faithful and yet colloquial version, his first words, of course, are complaints. «Since the professor showed up with his parents Wife,” he says, with a bitterly sarcastic twist on the last word, “my life has been total chaos.”

It is true that the professor – here called Alexander instead of the Russian moron Alexander Vladimirovich Serebryakov – has thrown the house into disarray with his demands, his sorrows and his undeserved haughtiness. But his wife, here called Elena, was, if possible, even more disruptive.

Beauty and boredom up close will. If Vanya is a smelly dog ​​who chases away easily, a local doctor, Astrov, proves to be the most tempting companion. He is intelligent, cynical and passionate, at first only about ecology, but soon also about Elena.

Vanya is usually the focus of the plot. His envy of both Alexander and Astrov, his crush on Elena, his resentment towards his mother (who delights in Alexander’s every apothegm), and his inattention to his niece’s needs (Sonia is in love with Astrov) they return to insult him like a comically infallible boomerang. No wonder the role was a hit with Broadway greats like Ralph Richardson, George C. Scott, Derek Jacobi and Nicol Williamson.

But Carell is not a ham: he is precise, natural, not very imposing. It’s a reasonable choice given the in vitro text, which reads like a comedy of disappointment. But even live, on stage, it should be a tragedy of inertia. For this you need a dominant Vanya with an angry inner life.

The fact that I don’t have one here is not fatal. Neugebauer is such a detailed director, honing every moment and movement to the point of chic, that this typically gorgeous Lincoln Center Theater production offers a hundred things to enjoy. Mimi Lien’s sylvan set, which recedes into the depths of the Beaumont stage, is one of them. Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird’s musical interludes, often with accordion and violin, are another, hitting the work’s jaunty melancholy just right. Kaye Voyce’s contemporary costumes, which quickly identify each character’s status and self-concept, are gorgeous and, in the case of Elena’s knit dresses with their form-fitting cuts, sensational.

So is the woman who wears them: Anika Noni Rose. Building on her history as ingenues (“Caroline, or Change”) and mermaids (“Carmen Jones”), she arrives here as the ominous question mark at the end of everyone’s thoughts. I have never seen an Elena so determined and, at the same time, so lost.

That’s one advantage of Carell’s giving way: the other characters have more room to shine. Of course, the play always draws attention to Elena (written for Chekhov’s future wife) and Astrov (originally played by Stanislavski himself) because they are the only possible lovers. But here, Astrov, gifted with great self-deprecating wit by William Jackson Harper, is more dimensional than usual, including, for once, an interest in trees that is as painfully visceral as his interest in Elena.

Supporting roles are equally vividly filled. Alfred Molina as the professor has particularly luxurious casting; nailing the infantile self-esteem of the academically spoiled, he is never funnier than when he is dead serious about his imaginary self-importance. As Sonia, Alison Pill has obviously thought about what it means to have lived with her uncle for so long, breathing her resentment, without daring to give credit to her own. This makes her the only truly dignified character: the one who makes you want to cry.

Otherwise I wanted to laugh. Jayne Houdyshell creates an instantly recognizable type of Vanya’s mother: the cultured Upper West Side lady in multicolored dresses who reads political newspapers and is probably skeptical about the products. Marina, the family’s former nanny, also has room for a wicked reading from Mia Katigbak. Lovingly resigned to the family’s weaknesses, she is nevertheless the pin in their hot air balloon.

While all this works well as light comedy, Chekhov’s ideal balance may require something heavier as ballast. I don’t just mean a heavier central performance, which believably builds on the famous attempted violence in Act III and suffers all the consequences.

It may also be that Schreck — with a keen ear for the unhindered flow he demonstrated in “What the Constitution Means to Me,” on Broadway in 2019 — has cleared the text of the details and formalities that can provide useful resistance. He does not set the play anywhere or at any time in particular: the cottage in Finland that the professor wants to buy becomes, in this version, an unmapped “beach house”; money is measured in what appear to be contemporary dollars, yet (thank God) there are no cell phones.

These small decisions – and even the big production ones – make sense individually. Collectively, they add up to a lovely evening at the theatre. It’s not a backhanded compliment. But I have a feeling that if Chekhov heard “Uncle Vanya” described that way, well, he would never stop getting depressed.

Uncle Vanya
Through June 16 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Manhattan; Duration of the show: 2 hours and 25 minutes.