‘Uncle Vanya’ Review: Confidences by Candlelight

Leaning close in the flickering candlelight, Sonya and the man who makes her stomach flutter share a sneaky midnight snack. He is Astrov, her houseguest, and he is frankly a bit of a mess — drinks too much, is in fact drunk at the moment. He is also endearingly odd and smart and sweet, an eco-nerd physician who’s sending her some incredibly mixed signals.

“We’re all alone here,” he says, sotto voce. “We can be honest with each other.”

It is a scene so beguiling, so full of crushy hope on one side and obliviousness (or is it?) on the other, that it’s like watching Laura and the Gentleman Caller in “The Glass Menagerie.” But this is “Uncle Vanya,” and if Chekhov has never before made you want to match-make a couple of his characters on Tinder, this version — directed by Jack Serio in a loft in the Flatiron District of Manhattan — just might.

“You’re a beautiful human being, more than anybody I know,” Sonya tells Astrov, and because she is portrayed by the magnificent Marin Ireland and he would obviously be ridiculously lucky to have her, your whole soul rises up in outrage: What is wrong with this likable doctor (beautifully played by Will Brill of sexy “Oklahoma!” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) that he’s obsessed with Yelena, her stepmother, instead?

So is Sonya’s Uncle Vanya, whose play this is meant to be. A nose-to-the-grindstone worker, he looks up in middle age and realizes to his horror and humiliation that he has wasted his life fattening the bank account and elevating the status of an unworthy man: Sonya’s father, the over-entitled professor, Serebryakov (a dapper Bill Irwin). Doomed to receive nothing better from Yelena, the professor’s wife, than a pathetic kiss on the forehead, Vanya doesn’t even have a woman to love him.

David Cromer’s performance in the title role, though, suggests none of that swallowed fire and swirling torment. His Vanya is a blank, and it’s not a matter of simplicity or restraint; there is nothing to the interpretation underneath the words, even when Vanya gets loud. Certainly there wasn’t on Saturday night, when I saw the play. But a live show is an evolving organism. Cromer may yet fill up that hollowness.

Using a warm, seamless, contemporary translation by Paul Schmidt, and performed for an audience of no more than 40 seated along two sides of the loft, this is an intimate production that’s strange as well — because of the unbalancing emptiness of Cromer’s Vanya, and because of the maturity and intelligence of its Yelena, played by Julia Chan.

Reading as older than the 27 years that Chekhov specifies, but still clearly decades younger than her husband, she is no incurious ingenue. There is a wisdom to this Yelena, and a savvy; Astrov and Vanya’s rivalrous infatuation with her, then, is no mere response to dewdrop youth. Chicly dressed for the city life she has left behind (costumes are by Ricky Reynoso), she is the picture of pristine elegance, sure of herself and too lively minded to find happiness in the cosseted quiet of this country house.

No one else is finding happiness, either, of course; at best, perhaps placid resignation. Vanya, in his resentment, comes nowhere near that, but a bouquet-smashing eruption of his temper is the catalyst for a mesmerizingly pretty stage tableau: soft orange rose petals fallen just so on the weathered teal table and the blond wood floor. (The set is by Walt Spangler, the props by Carrie Mossman.)

“It was a scene worthy of an old master,” Vanya and Sonya’s adorable, guitar-strumming neighbor, Telegin (the wonderfully funny Will Dagger), says a short time later, and while he may be thinking less of the flowers than of the gunplay that ensued, the sentiment is absolutely right.

Stunning visuals — like those petals and that candlelit tête-à-tête — are a hallmark of Serio’s work. The lighting designer Stacey Derosier, who was instrumental to the look of his “On Set With Theda Bara” early this year and “This Beautiful Future” last year, also designed “Uncle Vanya.”

But what glows most tantalizingly in this production is the pulsing electricity between the tender, resilient Sonya and the tree-planting Astrov, who is far too casual with her heart. If only he could love her the way he loves the forest.

Uncle Vanya
Through July 16 at a loft in the Flatiron District, Manhattan; vanyanyc.com. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

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