This is an interesting moment for the relatively underappreciated Pearl Theatre Company, one of the few theater companies left in New York that is dedicated solely to the classics (or new material inspired by the classics) and the only one I can think of with a resident company of actors. At this point, the Pearl can push ahead and prosper, fall by the wayside, or remain as it is now, sort of on the fringe of Off-Broadway.
In spite of its distinctions, the Pearl has relatively limited resources compared to other classical theater companies like the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, DC, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater or even the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Although Sean McNall has received a lot of well-earned praise in recent years, the Pearl’s acting company is generally undistinguished. Its productions have generally not been selling too well. In February 2013, former artistic director J.R. Sullivan sent out an emergency email pleading for additional financial support in order to ensure the company’s future.
But it has a lot of potential. Hal Brooks, its newly named artistic director, has done fine productions of Figaro and The Bald Soprano in recent seasons. Its new space on 42nd Street (formerly home to Signature Theatre Company) offers far more visibility than sharing a black box in the basement of City Center. It is also creating promising partnerships with Bernard Shaw expert David Staller (whose production of Major Barbara is up next) and the Shakespeare Society (which will co-produce The Winter’s Tale with the Pearl in February). With some luck, the Pearl could become an essential destination for the classics.
To open its 31st season, the company chose Uncle Vanya. It has not done any Chekhov in a long time, which is surprising since his handful of masterful dramas are suited to the Pearl’s resident ensemble (which incorporates performers from a range of ages) and its intimate space. However, Uncle Vanya received three back-to-back Off-Broadway productions just two years ago (including Annie Baker’s modernized adaptation at Soho Rep and the Sydney Theatre Company’s production with Cate Blanchett). Why didn’t they go with The Cherry Orchard instead?
Uncle Vanya observes the trials and tribulations of a mostly miserable Russian household. As with all of Chekhov’s best-known tragicomedies, there isn’t much plot. Its real value lies as a brilliant character study of individuals coping with unresolved ambitions and boredom.
Brooks’ straightforward staging, while respectful of the text, is pretty uneven, with actors who vary in their ability and suitability to the roles. However, it does have many fine moments, and a traditionalist might even prefer this to the other recent productions of the play, none of which was especially great.
Its greatest asset lies in the superb performance of Chris Mixon in the title role. The bearded, bald Mixon powerfully conveys Vanya’s disillusionment, jadedness and resentment with both ease and urgency. Also worthy of praise is Paul Schmidt’s unusually accessible translation. The minimal set design is surprisingly atmospheric, with a false proscenium arch to add a classical touch (though a swing set looks uncomfortably positioned next to a kitchen table). The spare set is supplemented by rich period costumes.
Bradford Cover portrays Astrov, the inebriated doctor, rather broadly, though he brings vigor to the character’s rant about no one caring about the environment, a part of the play that was certainly ahead of its time. As Sonya, niece to Vanya and daughter to a professor who is mainly concerned with retiring in peace and with financial security, Michelle Beck lacks basic stage presence. As Yelena, the professor’s young new wife, Rachel Botchman lacks the character’s restlessness, nor does she come off as the beautiful knockout whose mere presence would drive Vanya and Astrov into frenzy. On the other hand, Beck is far too pretty for the supposedly plain Sonya.
I strongly recommend checking out Major Barbara, as Staller’s recent productions of Man and Superman at the Irish Repertory Theatre and You Never Can Tell at the Pearl were pretty strong for relatively difficult Shaw plays. Considering how infrequently Shaw is produced by other New York companies (even Classic Stage Company hasn’t done a Shaw play in years), perhaps that could become the Pearl’s specialty.