Newport Theatre Arts Center Finds Chekhov’s Comedic Side in Uncle Vanya

He wasn’t talking about dick jokes or snappy one-liners, but Russian writer Anton Chekhov thought most early productions of his plays weren’t comedic enough. Sure, you don’t think of laugh riots when you think of Chekhov characters, this sad lot of ennui-stricken people who can’t connect with one another or make active choices to improve their lives. But all too often, the productions he saw seemed mired in his characters’ tragic paralysis when he apparently thought it was better to laugh along with them, to recognize their shared humanity, to feel for them, rather than write them off as losers.

Unfortunately, far too many contemporary Chekhov productions don’t consider the playwright’s own note. Most are way too long, oppressively bleak and dreary, and not a great deal of fun. They are Serious Productions of Serious Plays by a Serious Writer, and by God, if theater people think he’s important, then the audience is going to think so as well—or else.

That’s not the case with Alex Golson’s production of Uncle Vanya, currently on the boards at the Newport Theatre Arts Center. Much of it, of course, has to do with his spirited direction and a vibrant cast that includes a few of the county’s most stand-out actors. But it also has to do with the script he’s using, a 1998 adaptation of Chekhov’s original by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Not only did Friel translate the turn-of-the-20th-century language into a more contemporary idiom, but he also created bits of dialogue to punch up the proceedings, leading one New York Times scribe to opine that the characters seemed less Russian than Irish, with their witty insults and quick comebacks.

The result is a play that might disappoint a Chekhov purist, but they’re probably insufferably boring, stick-up-their-butt people anyway, so who cares? For the rest of us, it creates a far-more-engaging, accessible play, one that retains all of Chekhov’s themes, subtleties and craft, but doesn’t feel like a dusty museum piece, one of those things that people should see.

A good example is the character of Astrov (a strong Sean Hesketh). In the original, he’s an unhappy country doctor resigned to a life of drudgery and loneliness, his only apparent passion planting trees in de-forested areas of the countryside. But here, he’s more of a protean crusader against human impact on the environment, warning that the climate is already beginning to change in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and it’s only going to get worse.

The characters of Vanya and Sonya are also refurbished. Vanya (a powerfully nuanced Mark Coyan) is not the depressed, broken man of so many productions, but rather a bitterly frustrated powder keg, one who processes his inner anguish through outbursts and cynical asides. His niece, Sonya (a marvelously textured Alexandra Burke), is less brooding and pathetic and more resolute and passionately in love with the aforementioned Astrov. Rather than reacting to everything, she seems to be the fulcrum of the play, running the household and trying to keep not only her erratic uncle in check, but also the source of so much of his bitterness, his pedantic former brother-in-law Alexander (an irresistibly cloying and annoying Rick Kopps), a recently retired professor who has decided to move into the family estate.

The supporting characters (such as Lisa Black—who also happens to be this infernal rag’s proofreader!—as a sweet-natured nanny) are also strong, though Carla Naragon, as Elena, doesn’t project the elusive sexuality of the character who basically upends this already-precarious household. Her unattainability drives two characters to extreme actions, leading to the comical climax, in which one lovesick, frustrated character is unable to shoot someone at point-blank range—twice. But this Elena doesn’t seem to deserve the fuss, as there is little spark to the characterization.

There is a great deal going on beneath the surface, but this adaptation makes it more apparent and, consequently, engaging. Even though the lives of melancholy, disaffected, upper-middle-class Russians in the turbulent years before 1905’s Bloody Sunday and the inexorable slide toward revolution a decade later are obviously far removed from ours today, what makes Chekhov brilliant—and this adaptation and production succeed—is that, as people, they’re not. These are the people we all know who live in places they don’t really like, who have the same boring conversations with the same boring people all the time, who are stuck in unfulfilling jobs or relationships and who know what they need to do, but just can’t seem to do it. Nowadays, of course, we can drug ourselves into avoidance or endlessly amuse ourselves to death, but outside of vodka, there was little Chekhov’s characters could do except dwell on the roads not taken and ask themselves, to channel a rather (at times) Chekhovian bard from New Jersey, is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true, or is it something worse?

Uncle Vanya at Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 631-0288; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 17. $17.

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