Uncle Vanya

by Ellen Wernecke

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 16, 2009

Denis O’Hare and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Uncle Vanya."
Denis O’Hare and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Uncle Vanya."  

It's the lucky Off-Broadway play that gets a name recognizable to people outside the New York theatre scene; getting two is even more remarkable. While a New York Times article pointed out they weren't as popular with the paparazzi as TomKat, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard are big enough names that their stature, if not their performances, dominates the press coverage of Classic Stage Company's production of Uncle Vanya -- in which they are very good, if not great.

The initial jolt of seeing Sarsgaard and Gyllenhaal, whose filmed work doesn't lead usually to period drama, is lessened by their professional approach to "Uncle Vanya." Sarsgaard as Doctor Astrov, a regular visitor to the estate for whom Sofya (Mamie Gummer) pines but who is bewitched by Gyllenhaal's Yelena, is unconvincing at the beginning but manages to loosen up, ironically when his character takes to the drink.

The same is true of Gyllenhaal, although to a lesser degree, because her first entrances are more secure. (This is odd because, of course, Sarsgaard is coming off a run as Trigorin in "The Seagull" on Broadway opposite Kristin Scott Thomas.) With all eyes on the celebrity pair, they do an admirable job of not betraying themselves as more than what they are in the context of the play. The moment when Yelena and Astrov finally acknowledge what's going on between them, screened as it is between posts of Santo Loquasto's bizarre set design (which at the least, doesn't flatter any side of the audience), is well played.

But even with their collective wattage the night belongs to two of their costars even more. Denis O'Hare's loose, natural and uncompromising portrayal of Vanya facing his wasted life soars above anything else going on onstage. (Although, it doesn't hurt that most of his stage time is spent downstage.) O'Hare clearly knows the material but director Austin Pendleton doesn't get more conventional readings of it stand in the way of his fluid reading. Along with Gummer, no stranger to high expectations on the local stage, O'Hare is heartbreaking as Vanya and Sofya face the rest of their lives, him with a resignation, and her with a little bit of hope.

Through March 8 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. For tickets and more information, visit classicstage.org

Ellen Wernecke's work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and The Onion A.V. Club, and she comments on books regularly for WEBR's "Talk of the Town with Parker Sunshine." A Wisconsin native, she now lives in New York City.