So many hundreds of plays in which bored and depressed people bemoan the meaninglessness of life have been written in this century that it's difficult to take an isolated look at one of the originals.
Poor Uncle Vanya, along with the three sisters and a few others, probably little thought that the lack of excitement in their lives would change theatrical history. But the development of Chekhovian themes in Western drama makes it particularly interesting to see the once-startling beginnings of this drama again.
Only "Uncle Vanya," at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, deserves a better production. This one is a slangy translation, by Frederick Monnoyer, glaringly miscast.
It's not only that Peter O'Toole decided to play Dr. Astrov instead of the title role, thus throwing off the balance of the cast. Whatever reason he could have had for this - Astrov is, indeed, the one man whom the women in the play find attractive, but his cynical humor and even his drunk scene are inferior to Vanya's - it means that his considerable star presence overshadows the character of Vanya. O'Toole plays him in a sardonic, sexy way that makes it ludicrously unbelievable that the doctor has put sex behind him to concentrate on forest preservation.
But the Vanya of Roderick Cook, who also directed the play with Nat Brenner, would have had problems without this competition. Cook's measured, prissy interpretation has moments of subtlety, but the overall impression is that he was born to be stepped on, and if he has thrown his life away in service to the psuedo-intelletual egoist Serebriakof, well, Serebriakof is more of a person than he.
Serebriakof's daughter Sonya is supposed to be plain, but Maureen McRae has her be emotionally as well as physically plan. A woman who has managed not only an estate but a variety of passionate attachments can't be quite that simple; but in the tediously done ending of the play, Sonya's plea to Vanya that they take up their lives and go on sounds as if she is merely urging him to fulfill a social engagement that they both acknowledge is a chore.
And it's that scene and the suggestions leading up to it that should mark the difference between "Uncle Vanya" and its later imitators. Chekhov's Russian provincials may be bored, depressed, cheated by illusions and longing for oblivion - but they remain part of a social fabric. True, the fabric is fraying, but the commitment to life and God remains; it triumphs. Without that, as we have seen, there is nothing but unrelieved despair; a modern Vanya would not have surrendered the drugs he took trouble to steal.
Aside from the basic problem of casting, the production was showing minor problems in its previews. Sound effects were mistimed, so that actors would mention hearing horses coming before a mechanical clippity-clop was sounded, and the flash of lightning was done with the same timing as in the foyer to signify that the intermission was over. UNCLE VANYA - At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through December 23.