If the summer theater season of 2012 is remembered for nothing else, it should go down for the unexpected reign of Uncle Vanya. After all, when was the last time a single Chekhov drama received three revivals over a relatively short period of time?
This trend began with an experimental, critically dismissed Off-Broadway production by Target Margin Theater in which the play, which explores an unhappy Russian household full of unrequited love and anxieties, was rewritten based on improvisational exercises with the cast.
Another Off-Broadway staging produced by Soho Rep, which is still running in Tribeca, is set around a small living-room setting in which the audience surrounds the cast and sits on carpeted benches. This contemporized production, which features a new book by the newly popular playwright Annie Baker, makes for an unusually intimate experience.
Last but not least is the Sydney Theatre Company’s rendition of the play, which stars Australian film actress Cate Blanchett as Yelena, the young and attractive second wife of an insignificant but smug professor. It received wild acclaim when it played a short engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, one year ago.
As the centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, it is playing City Center, which is a terrific venue for musical theater concerts from the celebrated Encores! series but far too large for a play, let alone a demanding classic drama. It is also difficult to hear the cast, which is not using microphones, from even a seat in the middle of the orchestra section, let alone the mezzanine or balcony.
Nevertheless, Tamás Ascher’s richly detailed production, which is updated to the Soviet Union of the 1950s, proves to be engaging and accessible. It is even funny, featuring some very clever bits of staging. In one terrific moment, Blanchett throws a blanket over herself to drown out the wailings of Richard Roxburgh, who stands out as a wildly theatrical Vanya
The statuesque Blanchett is made to contrast directly with the grim, deteriorated surroundings of the country estate, where holes have even been punched through the walls, and the rest of the cast, which is dressed in slovenly costumes.
Seeing as the Sydney Theater Company has managed to bring back Blanchett in Uncle Vanya, might it now do the same with A Streetcar Named Desire, which played Brooklyn Academy of Music three seasons ago for an all-too-short run?