Steve Carell Is A Sad Clown UNCLE VANYA In A New Broadway Revival — Review


Steve Carell in Uncle Vanya | Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Joey Sims
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April 24, 2024 9:00 PM

In fleeting moments, Lincoln Theater Center’s new Broadway revival of Uncle Vanya finds some glimmers of magic. 

You feel it when Sonia (a very sweet Allison Pill) throws herself excitedly into a huge puddle, suddenly filled with hope that her love – local doctor Astrov – might reciprocate her feelings. 

Or when Astrov (an excellent William Jackson Harper, sharp-edged and cutting) gets so hopelessly drunk with Sonia’s uncle Vanya that the pair, after egging on each other’s misery, finally fall into uncontrollable giggles. 

Or when Vanya himself (a competent Steve Carell) wanders aimlessly through the grounds of the massive estate, becoming a tiny speck far, far downstage on the vast abyss of the Vivian Beaumont stage.

Vanya’s lonely roaming is one the few arresting images in director Lila Neugebauer's mostly unremarkable staging of Anton Chekhov’s much-produced classic. Featuring an all-star company including Alfred Molina as Sonia’s father Alexander, Anika Noni Rose as Alexander’s new younger wife Elena and Jayne Houdyshell as Vanya’s mother Maria, this new version has been adapted by Tony Award-nominated playwright Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means To Me).

What was the guiding light for Schreck and Neugebauer in tackling Vanya? Based on what’s now on stage at the Beaumont, it’s difficult to say. This revival is competent, rarely boring and often funny, but there is no sense of a larger vision. This staging just kind of sits there, without any clear reason to exist. 

William Jackson Harper and Allison Pill | Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Loosely set in the near-future, Schreck’s adaptation makes judicious trims and sparing contemporary additions. She mostly trusts the play, letting the language do the work. The set looks modern, but there is nary a cell phone in sight — Vanya isn’t about to go live asking for up/down votes on killing himself. (That might have been more fun, honestly.) 

In placing the action out-of-time, Schreck’s adaptation suffers by comparison to Jack Serio’s recent loft-Vanya, which seamlessly pulled off the same approach without the need for any adaptation, instead using Paul Schmidt’s translation.

Unlike Serio’s, this Vanya leans heavily into comedy. Across the board, the ensemble seems on surer footing if landing a punchline. Harper especially finds sharp laughs in even Astrov’s cruelest moments. And the always reliable Mia Katigbak, as housekeeper Marina, most effectively hits on Neugebauer’s dominant tone of rueful sarcasm. 

Carell’s Vanya is a full-on clown, bouncing around the estate and hurling quips like a resident jester. Carell is funny, of course, and hits the big emotions when called upon. But it never feels like he is fully embodying a character. 

The women of Vanya do gain some added nuance in Schreck’s adaptation. That’s most evident in the tense dynamic between Sonia and Elena, which here takes on some added life. The two connect, more sincerely than I’ve previously seen, as mutually caged by their unhappy circumstances. 

There are other interesting details. Vanya grabs violently at Elena when confessing his love to her, a startling moment; Astrov is similarly rough with her in a later scene. Schreck mostly focuses on the laughs, but keeps it abundantly clear that these sad men’s projections onto cornered women are sometimes dangerous and, above all else, pathetic.  

Sadly, these intriguing shades never add up to a cohesive whole, making for a Vanya that engages but never really involves. 

Uncle Vanya is now in performance at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York City. 

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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