Dallas — If a mild family drama set in the late 19th-century Russian countryside sounds boring, that’s because it typically is. That is, unless the story is told by the great playwright Anton Chekhov, whose mastery of dialogue and subtext makes for a great theatrical experience. But performing Chekhov requires understanding Chekhov, and the team at the Dallas Actor’s Lab doesn’t seem to have done their homework, resulting in a lifeless production of Annie Baker’s new translation of Uncle Vanya, directed by Dylan Key. It's the third production in the AT&T Performing Arts Center's conversation-sparking Elevator Project.
Uncle Vanya is about a family in a generational transition. The old professor Serebryakov (Eric Devlin) lives in the city but owns a country estate that is run by his daughter Sophia (Katherine Bourne) and brother-in-law Vanya (David Goodwin). He comes to visit with his new young wife Yelena (Janielle Kastner). The professor is old and ailing, as is the estate, which has been overtaken by degradation. The country doctor Astrov (Kyle Lemieux), which is what Chekhov had been before turning to writing, shows up to care for the professor. A series of bifurcated struggles play out culminating in the professor announcing his decision to sell the estate. Naturally, Vanya does not take this news well.
First, Devlin’s performance as the jovial, aloof professor is excellent. The voice he gives the professor is imbued with the struggle of mortality often covered by a desire to be pleasant, with a tinge of absent-mindedness. His professor is likable, even when he isn’t, which is exactly what that character should be. Likewise, Gina Waits’ performance as the housekeeper Marina is pleasantly homey and wise.
But the action of the play mainly involves Vanya, Astrov, Sophia and Yelena. Both Goodwin and Lemieux are flat in the opening act. Astrov is meant to be kind of cool, but Lemieux, who is Dallas Actor’s Lab’s Artistic Director, plays it so cool that he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort until late in the play when he makes far too much of one. Something Chekhov once specifically said would ruin the play was if Astrov played his final scene with Yelena with a “towering passion.” Lemieux shucks the slightly nihilistic coolness of Astrov, which Chekhov would actually endorse in that moment, for over-the-top emotion—which comes off as a bit creepy at best; completely faked at worst.
Goodwin pulls a similar feat with Vanya. Besides not being age appropriate—or the youngest-looking 47-year-old ever—Goodwin plays up Vanya’s inferiority complex towards the professor, culminating in a pretty shocking outburst of rage. That is how it’s written, but Chekhov’s moments of heightened emotion were rarely meant to be taken as seriously as they might read on the page. There’s a kind of dark, existential comedy at play that lends Chekhov’s work a sly commentary on futility that is completely missed in favor of insular drama.
As for Bourne and Kastner, there are times when they’re wonderful. Their scenes together are particularly good. But, when they get around the men they crank up the drama and generally allow the men to act upon them as they work on perfecting their shocked and traumatized facial expressions. The common theme being that the group sold out for drama in this production and it makes the whole experience an eye-rolling bore. And, at two hours and 45 minutes, interminable.
Reading Baker’s translation makes it easy to see where director Dylan Key went astray. Baker is a talented playwright. Her play The Flick, which just had a magnificent run at Undermain Theatre, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year. In her preface to this new translation she makes note of trying to maintain the integrity of the original grammar of the text, which included ellipses among long run-on sentences. Basically, the characters ramble somewhat, at times. These ellipses, along with the occasional stage note of a “pause,” proved to be troublesome for Key and his cast.
The show drags terribly. The actors allow every line to land, making liberal use of pauses, both written and not. This lack of momentum plays a significant part in flattening the performances. The richness of Chekhov’s dialogue is lost somewhere in the long gaps between lines.
This also affects the tone. How a production chooses to play Chekhov is a tell to their understanding of his writing. For instance, Chekhov himself bills The Seagull as a comedy; and humor is in most of his plays. After all, this was a man who was well known for writing incredible farces such as The Dangers of Tobacco. And to that point, there is no dramaturg credited in this production.
Vanya is not specifically billed as a comedy. Its subtitle is “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts.” However, Vanya is essentially a retooling of an earlier Chekhov play called The Wood Goblin, which he categorizes as comedy.
It’s not necessarily traditional comedy, but it is there if the director and actors know how to look for it. Hell, this cast elicited some laughter from the audience in spite of the meandering performance. That speaks to the quality of Baker’s translation as well as the inherently sharp genius of Chekhov himself. It’s there, but with the exceptions of Devlin and Waits, these actors play the text as heavily dramatic.
Not that playing Chekhov for drama is without precedent. At the first reading for Three Sisters, Stanislavsky, who loved the play, considered it a drama—which angered Chekhov. The thing is, Chekhov’s writing is so good that it can work either way. And it still doesn’t work here, because the cast bypasses drama on their sharp climb from languidness to melodrama in the climactic final act.
This production is an earnest labor of love, produced and performed by a group of people who no doubt have great respect for Chekhov. But the performances rarely rise above the standard recitation of lines with a small dose of affect thrown in to make them sound vaguely dramatized.
There are flashes of something promising, such as Devlin, Waits, Key and Lemieux’s scene design. But for all the work that went into making a small sliver of a ninth floor rehearsal space at the Wyly Theatre look like the parlor of a country house—the audience sits in too-comfy sofas around the perimeter of a makeshift playing space—there’s not enough emphasis on understanding the text.
As a result, like the forest around the house, the production slowly dies as time creeps endlessly along, which if nothing else, at least gives the audience the slow sense of dread felt by Vanya…as well as the disappointing outcome.