‘Uncle Vanya’ Broadway Review: Steve Carell Now Plays a 47-Year-Old Virgin

The actor makes his New York stage debut in a revival of the Chekhov classic that’s much more comedy than tragedy

Steve Carell in "Uncle Vanya" (Credit: Marc J. Franklin)
Steve Carell in "Uncle Vanya" (Credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Lila Neugebauer directs a very punchy revival of “Uncle Vanya,” which opened Wednesday at LCT’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Anton Chekhov’s characters suffer from ennui, but not so much in this production.

Steve Carell makes his Broadway debut in the title role, and he isn’t the only one on stage who seems to have realized, just before the show begins, that the character he’s playing is bored, weary of life and more than ready for a major change. As played by Alison Pill, Uncle Vanya’s niece Sonia is brimming with life. Even William Jackson Harper brings genuine excitement to all of Astrov’s pursuits, whether the doctor is trying to save the environment, avoid another sick bed call or seduce Elena.

In that pivotal role of the woman whom almost every man on stage wants to possess — Jonathan Hadary’s daffy Waffles being the notable exception — Anika Noni Rose doesn’t so much float above the foray as put  up a defiant road block against it.

In the role of Elena’s husband, Alfred Molina almost belongs to another, more traditional production of “Uncle Vanya.” Part of it is his British accent among all the American accents. Then again, it’s possible to read his more mellifluous tone as Alexander simply being pompous and pretentious, which the professor most definitely is. More significant, the character he plays resists Heidi Schreck’s new version of the play that sets the Chekhov classic in the not-so-distant past. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are late 20th century, and a record player provides incidental music on Matt Saunders’ bare set.

Schreck avoids the modern slang that Amy Herzog brings to the current “An Enemy of the People” (“She was messing with me”) and last season’s “A Doll’s House” (“He’s wasted”), although “rubles” are now “bucks.” The biggest change is the character of Vanya and Alexander’s mother. Maria no longer rubs the one son’s nose in the other’s success, and Jayne Houdyshell brings her usual cuddly persona to the role.        

Schreck’s toning down of the mother character robs Vanya of a major motive for wanting to shoot his brother. Vanya is a 47-year-old virgin, and much more frustrated than Carell’s Andy Stitzer. He’s the ultimate mama’s boy whose mother much prefers the other son, who, until now, has lived far away from her in the big city. Distance provokes love, familiarity breeds contempt. Schreck simply doesn’t provide Houdyshell those ideas to play with. This Maria is an equal-opportunity mom.

Otherwise, Carell’s everyman screen persona works well in this American take on Chekhov. All in all, it’s a very lively and funny comedy. A tragedy, however, this “Uncle Vanya” is not. All these characters will go on with their boring lives after the final curtain falls and not be terribly upset about it.   

Last year, William Jackson Harper delivered the year’s most moving performance, in “Primary Trust.” His doctor in “Uncle Vanya” could not be more different from the meek adult man with an imaginary friend that he played in Eboni Booth’s great new play. Harper’s portrayal is also a dramatic change from the way the doctor in this Chekhov classic is usually perceived. Astrov continues to down vodka to face another patient, but he’s no longer a misty-eyed romantic loser, and much of that change comes in the text as Chekhov wrote it. Astrov’s dire warnings about the environment come wrapped in speeches that could have been written this morning. Public perception of climate change has finally caught up to what Chekhov wrote in the 1890s.

This production’s most riveting scenes all feature Harper, whether it’s his ignoring Sonia or his pursuing Elena or his caring for the forest.


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