Review: Steve Carell as the 50-Year-Old Loser in a Comic ‘Uncle Vanya’

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

You can’t blame him. Vanya has spent most of his nearly 50 years scraping thin profit from a provincial estate, and not even for himself. The money he makes, running the farm with his unmarried niece, goes to support life in the city for his fatuous, gouty sort-of-ex-brother-in-law, an art professor who “knows nothing about art.” Also, Vanya is hopelessly in love with the old man’s exquisitely languorous young wife, who, reasonably enough, finds the moper pathetic.

In short, he is the opposite of the bold, laudable characters most writers of the late 1890s would name a play for. That’s probably just why Chekhov did it, announcing a new kind of protagonist for a new kind of drama. Life in his experience having turned squalid and absurd, he could no longer paint it for audiences as heroic. So how could his protagonist be a hero?

The “Uncle Vanya” that opened on Wednesday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, its 10th Broadway revival in 100 years, sees Chekhov’s epochal bet and raises it. If Vanya is properly no hero in this amusing but rarely deeply affecting production, it’s because he’s no one at all. He despairs and disappears.

That would seem to be quite a trick, given that he’s played by Steve Carell, the star of “The Office” and, perhaps more relevantly, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Carell’s Vanya imports from those appearances the weaselly overeagerness that makes you roll your eyes at him while also worrying about his mental health. He makes jokes that aren’t. He gets excited over all the wrong things. Rain coming? He called it.

Without a camera trained on such a man, you quickly learn to ignore him, as you would in real life. Indeed, in Lila Neugebauer’s sleek, lucid staging, you barely notice Vanya even as he makes his first entrance, hidden behind a bench. When he speaks you don’t pay much more attention; in Heidi Schreck’s smooth, faithful yet colloquial new version, his first words, naturally, are complaints. “Ever since the professor showed up with his spouse,” he says, with a bitterly sarcastic spin on the last word, “my life has been total chaos.”

It’s true that the professor — here called Alexander instead of the Russian mouthful Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov — has thrown the household into disarray with his demands and pains and unearned hauteur. But his wife, here called Elena, has been, if possible, even more disruptive.

Beauty and boredom in close quarters will do that. If Vanya is a malodorous dog she easily shoos away, a local doctor, Astrov, proves the more tempting companion. He is intelligent, cynical and passionate, at first about ecology only, but soon about Elena as well.

Vanya is usually the linchpin of the plot. His envy of both Alexander and Astrov, his crush on Elena, his resentment of his mother (who delights in Alexander’s every apothegm), and his heedlessness of his niece’s needs (Sonia is in love with Astrov) all return to ding him like a comically inerrant boomerang. No wonder the role has been catnip for big Broadway hams like Ralph Richardson, George C. Scott, Derek Jacobi and Nicol Williamson.

But Carell is no ham: He’s precise, natural, unimposing. That’s a reasonable choice given the text in vitro, which reads as a comedy of anticlimax. But in vivo, onstage, it should be, as well, a tragedy of inertia. For that you need a dominant Vanya with a rageful inner life.

That it does not have one here is not fatal. Neugebauer is such a detailed director, honing every moment and movement to a chic polish, that this typically gorgeous Lincoln Center Theater production offers a hundred things to enjoy. Mimi Lien’s sylvan set, receding into the depths of the Beaumont stage, is one. Musical interludes, by the songwriter Andrew Bird, often featuring accordion and violin, are another, striking the play’s jaunty melancholy just right. Kaye Voyce’s contemporary costumes, quickly identifying each character’s status and self-concept, are wonderful, and in the case of Elena’s knit dresses with their form-hugging cuts, sensational.

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

That’s an advantage of Carell ceding ground: The other characters have more room to emerge. Of course, the play always draws attention to Elena (written for Chekhov’s soon-to-be wife) and Astrov (originally played by Stanislavsky himself) because they are the only feasible lovers. But here, Astrov, given great self-deprecatory wit by William Jackson Harper, is more dimensional than usual, including, for once, an interest in trees that’s as painfully visceral as his interest in Elena.

The supporting roles are just as vividly filled. Alfred Molina as the professor is especially luxurious casting; nailing the babyish self-regard of the academically pampered, he is never funnier than when totally serious about his imaginary importance. As Sonia, Alison Pill has obviously thought about what it means to have lived so long with her uncle, breathing in his grievance, not daring to credit 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 out of Vanya’s mother: the cultured Upper West Side lady in multicolor shmattes who reads political journals and is probably skeptical about produce. Even Marina, the family’s former nanny, is given room for a wicked read by Mia Katigbak. Lovingly resigned to the family’s foibles, she is nevertheless the pin in their hot air balloon.

If all this works well as light comedy, the ideal Chekhov balance may require something heavier as ballast. I don’t just mean a heavier central performance, one that believably builds to the famous attempt at violence in Act III, and suffers its full consequences.

It may also be that Schreck — with the keen ear for unimpeded flow she demonstrated in “What the Constitution Means to Me,” on Broadway in 2019 — has wiped the text too clean of the specifics and formalities that can provide useful resistance. She sets the play nowhere and at no time in particular: The cottage in Finland the professor wants to buy becomes, in this version, an unmapped “beach house”; money is measured in what sounds like contemporary dollars, yet there are (thank God) no cellphones.

These small decisions — and the production’s big ones, too — make sense individually. Collectively, they add up to a lovely evening in the theater. That’s not a backhanded compliment. But I have a feeling that if Chekhov heard “Uncle Vanya” described that way, well, he’d never stop moping.

Uncle Vanya
Through June 16 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Manhattan; vanyabroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

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