Reviews

Uncle Vanya ****, Patriots ****

By: David Sheward

May 5, 2024: Lila Neugebauer’s laugh-filled, all-star revival of Anton Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya, at Lincoln Center’s cavernous Vivian Beaumont Theater, removes the play from its original setting of the pre-Revolutionary Russian countryside and places it in a non-specific, presumably American 2024. (Mimi Lein’s set appears to be somewhere in the rural heartland. The characters play jazz on a turntable. Costume designer Kaye Voyce has clothed them in casual modern dress. We hear the sound effects of automobiles offstage after they exit.) With a contemporary, idiomatic adaptation by Heidi Schreck, this production stresses Chekhov’s universal themes of despair and alienation and their comic aspects. Yes, the master playwright saw the humor in the drab and everyday. This approach largely succeeds. The melancholy characters laugh at themselves heartily to stop from constantly weeping. Too many Chekhov productions make the mistake of playing bored people in a boring way. Not here, thank goodness.

William Jackson Harper as Astrov in “Uncle Vanya”.

By: David Sheward

May 5, 2024: Lila Neugebauer’s laugh-filled, all-star revival of Anton Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya, at Lincoln Center’s cavernous Vivian Beaumont Theater, removes the play from its original setting of the pre-Revolutionary Russian countryside and places it in a non-specific, presumably American 2024. (Mimi Lein’s set appears to be somewhere in the rural heartland. The characters play jazz on a turntable. Costume designer Kaye Voyce has clothed them in casual modern dress. We hear the sound effects of automobiles offstage after they exit.) With a contemporary, idiomatic adaptation by Heidi Schreck, this production stresses Chekhov’s universal themes of despair and alienation and their comic aspects. Yes, the master playwright saw the humor in the drab and everyday. This approach largely succeeds. The melancholy characters laugh at themselves heartily to stop from constantly weeping. Too many Chekhov productions make the mistake of playing bored people in a boring way. Not here, thank goodness.

Steve Carell and Alison Pill in Uncle Vanya.

Steve Carrell, known mostly for his comic performances in such hit films as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Crazy Stupid Love, makes his Broadway debut as the title character, a frustrated intellectual who feels trapped by his circumstances. He forgoes his vague artistic ambitions to slave away managing his family’s estate. Carrell captures Vanya’s depression without drowning in it. He mines the humor and absurdity in Vanya’s self-created hell. William Jackson Harper is equally shaded and complex as Vanya’s best friend Dr. Astrov. Both lonely men are in love with the siren-like Elena (an alluring and sensitive Anika Noni Rose), the much younger second wife of Vanya’s pompous brother-in-law, the retired academic Alexander.

With the casting of the attractive and vital Alfred Molina as Alexander, for once, Elena’s marriage makes sense. This self-important pontificator is usually played as a decrepit old man, but here you can see Elena’s attraction to him and why she stays with him. Molina is very funny as a complaining crank, but you can see the remnants of the charismatic qualities that drew Elena and his first wife, Vanya’s late sister, to him. 

Alfred Molina and Anika Noni Rose in Uncle Vanya.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s daughter, Sonia (a moving Alison Pill) is pining with unrequited love for Astrov. Interestingly, Neugebauer and Schreck have added another layer of  romantic subtext, transforming a one-line walk-on role of Neighbor into a silent, unacknowledged suitor for Sonia. Spencer Donovan Jones makes the most of this cameo role, conveying a quiet longing for Sonia in his few moments on stage. Jayne Houdyshell is more sympathetic Maria, Vanya’s judgmental mother, than usual. Mia Katigbak is  properly maternal as the reliable family nurse and Jonathan Hadary is a gentle and loving Waffles, the pathetic tenant and family friend who still supports his unfaithful wife though she left him on their wedding day. 

There were some problems with the modern setting. When Vanya pleads with Astrov to “give me something” to relieve his despair, Chehkov’s script demands that the doctor reply he has nothing to offer his friend except advice to buck up and bear his misery. Since it seems we’re in contemporary times, the doctor should be able to prescribe anti-depressants or at least recommend a therapist. But then a well-adjusted Uncle Vanya would not be Chekhov’s character and it would not be his play. There are also some odd directorial choices such as having a rainstorm in what seems to be indoors. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise heartbreaking and moving production.

Will Keen as Vladimir Putin and Luke Thallon as Roman Abramovich in Patriots.

While the Lincoln Center Uncle Vanya eschews the play’s Russian roots, Peter Morgan’s Patriots at the Ethel Barrymore, is Russian to its core and offers an insightful and chilling depiction of the current state of that country. In plays like Frost/Nixon and The Audience, and the Netflix series The Crown, Morgan has skillfully laid out complex political and social currents in America and Great Britain. He does the same for Russia here, focusing on the fractious relationship between oligarch Boris Berezovsky (a brilliantly vibrant Michael Stuhlbarg) and president Vladimir Putin (a thrillingly icy Will Keen, repeating his London performance). 

Directed with supple smoothness by Rupert Goold, the story follows the trajectory of Putin’s rise and Berezovsky’s downfall. On Miriam Buether’s atmospheric set resembling one of Berezovsky’s nightclubs, the action begins with the oligarch rising to power as the old Soviet Union breaks up, allowing capitalism to flourish. Now unfettered by Communist restrictions, Berezovsky can make outrageously lucrative transactions including acquiring the country’s leading TV network, meaning he can influence public opinion. When President Boris Yeltsin steps down in 1999, Berezovsky picks little-known St. Petersburg deputy mayor and former cab driver Vladimir Putin as his successor, thinking Putin will be easy to manipulate. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past 25 years, you’ll know things didn’t work out as Berezovsky planned.

Will Keen as Vladimir Putin and Luke Thallon as Roman Abramovich in Patriots.

Morgan chronicles the rivalry between the two main characters with depth of detail, razor-sharp dialogue and growing tension. He takes us through a crash course of international events, including the submarine disaster of 2000 and Putin’s withdrawal from Western alliances, augmented by Ash J. Woodward’s dynamic video design. Berezovsky is eventually driven into exile in London as Putin strengthens his stranglehold on the country. Both claim to be the true patriot, working for the best outcome for Russia. Stuhlbarg and Keen are powerful and intense as the titans vying for dominance like a pair of bears battling over territory. Luke Thallon is equally effective as Roman Abramovich, an entrepreneur who switches sides from the oligarch to the president. 

Patriots is that rare item on Broadway, an intelligent political drama reflecting the current perilous state of our world and how we got here.

Stella Baker as Marina Litvinenko and in background, Michael Stuhlbarg as Boris Berezovsky in Patriots.

Uncle Vanya ****
April 24—June 16. Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com.
Photography: Marc J. Franklin

Alfred Molina and Anika Noni Rose in Uncle Vanya.

Patriots ****
Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 W. 47th St., NYC.
Running time: two hours and 35 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com.
April 22—June 23, 2024
Photography: Matthew Murphy

Luke Thallon as Roman Abramovich, Michael Stuhlbarg as Boris Berezovsky in Patriots.