Saturday, May 8, 2021

554. UNCLE VANYA (2 Productions). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Thayer David, Julie Garfield.

UNCLE VANYA [Dramatic Revival] A: Anton Chekhov


D: Gene Feist; S: Holmes Easley; C: Mimi Maxmen; L: Robert Murphy; M: Philip Campanella; P: Roundabout Theatre Company; T: Roundabout Theatre (OB); 1/13/71-2/28/71 (46); Cherry Lane Theatre (OB); 3/5/71-3/14/71 (8): total 54

Thayer David, Elizabeth Owens.

Chekhov’s 1899 drama of life and love among members of the Russian leisure class was seen in three revivals—an Off-Off Broadway one at the Classic Stage Company is not covered here—during our five-year window. The first was this interpretation decently directed by Gene Feist in what T.E. Kalem called “a lovingly fleshed-out revival.” The stage, Kalem said, came “to seem like an animated family album,” with what several others pointed to as an especially touching performance by Julie Garfield (John’s daughter) as Sonya, which earned her a Theatre World Award.

Clive Barnes, who also favored the production, thought it “an honest, fair reading of the play,” if not an especially illuminating one. For him, Feist’s staging was no more than “stolid.” Dick Brukenfeld found it conventional but acceptable, describing it as being in the traditional fashion of Russian gloominess. He added that it was nevertheless as effective as the wittier version then running OOB at the CSC.

Cast members included Ann Kingsley as Marya Voynitsky, Sterling Jensen as Vanya, Winston May as Astrov, Joni Ruth White as Marina, and Fred Stuthman as Telyegin. 


Elizabeth Wilson, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson. 

TR: Albert Todd and Mike Nichols; D: Mike Nichols; S/C: Tony Walton; L: Jules Fisher; P: Circle in the Square; T: Circle in the Square Joseph E. Levine Theatre; 6/4/73-7/28/73 (64)

Lillian Gish, Nicol Williamson.

Superstar director Mike Nichols assembled a superstar cast for this not particularly supercharged limited engagement. The reviews varied sharply in their estimations of what went right and what went wrong.

Some, like Walter Kerr, viewed the interpretation as deliberately dolorous, as if Nichols were trying to avoid capitalizing on his comedic gifts. “Plumping for earnestness instead—and letting occasional unavoidable titters fall where they just do fall—he may have taken much too literally certain remarks made by the despairing . . . figures of the piece.” John Simon, took the opposite position, claiming that Nichols had “seized on the comic side of Uncle Vanya, and kneaded it, orchestrated it, slapped it into absolute hilarity” while skimping on the more serious elements.

Elizabeth Wilson, George C. Scott.

Brendan Gill found all the right emotional ingredients in place, the sad as well as the funny, as “from one moment to the next we are swept by gusts of strong contrary feelings . . . and at the final curtain we are left . . . in a state of emotional dishevelment.” Harold Clurman, on the other hand, deplored the revival’s failure to achieve “aesthetic consistency because its elements are not integrated in a realization of Chekhov’s sense of life.” Kerr added that, in addition to Nichols being unable to find a single tone to the play, the acting was disunified and the characterizations dull.

Nicol Williamson, Julie Christie.

It was clear that the production offered a sort of acting contest between its leading male stars, Nicol Williamson, as Vanya, and George C. Scott, as Astrov. Simon called Scott “unbetterable. . . . Scott radiates controlled strength, boundless energy kept within bounds by a supreme feat of self-discipline, so that a whisper, a smile, a look, will emerge as a harnessed thunderbolt.” Williamson’s virtuosic Vanya was praised in equally potent language. Clurman saw this as “his most sympathetic performance. As acting it is first rate. His last moments . . . are truly moving.” Still, like one or two others, Clurman felt the characterization a bit too clownish. “We do not see enough of the man’s potential for honorable achievement, without which the play loses much of its point.”

Julie Christie, George C. Scott.

Of the other stars, Elizabeth Wilson’s Sonia was enormously skilled but the actress seemed too old and physically inappropriate for the role. Julie Christie was beautiful but bland as Elena, while competent but not particularly sterling work was turned in by Barnard Hughes as the Professor, Cathleen Nesbitt as Mrs. Voinitsky, Lillian Gish as Marina, and Conrad Bain as Telegin.

There were a number of grateful comments about Tony Walton’s designs, but a few argued tht one reason the revival failed to click for them was the long, awkward shape of the oval acting space. “The actors . . . are obliged to address one another from unnaturally long distances,” caviled Clurman.

Front: Cathleen Nesbitt, Lillian Gish, Elizabeth Wilson. Rear: Conrad Bain, Barnard Hughes, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Julie Christie.

Scott and Williamson both received Tony nominations, Williamson won a Drama Desk Award, and Nichols got a Tony nomination.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here.

Next up: Underground