Mamet treats `Uncle Vanya' with care. But production itself is a mixture of acting styles

PLAYWRIGHT and screenwriter David Mamet has moved from New York to Cambridge. Of course, the bigger news is tomorrow's Lincoln Center opening of Mamet's latest play, ``Speed-the-Plow,'' which stars rock phenomenon Madonna in her non-singing stage debut. Meanwhile, Mr. Mamet has been keeping himself busy at his new local stage, the American Repertory Theatre, where his adaptation of Chekhov's ``Uncle Vanya'' is having its premi`ere.

For those anticipating the playwright's bruising signature dialogue spewed out by the 19th-century Russian landed gentry, relax. Mamet reworked ``The Cherry Orchard'' a couple of seasons ago and has only tinkered with ``Uncle Vanya.''

There are a few new words and phrases - Serebryakov's use of ``picayune'' springs to mind - but Mamet is largely displaying a screenwriter's control rather than his authorial virtuosity. He has smoothed the frayed, antique edges of Chekhov's dialogue while leaving the play's original spirit intact.

If only the production, directed by the ART's David Wheeler, had done the same. Laissez faire in the extreme might kindly describe Mr. Wheeler's approach to this least tragic of Chekhov's comic-tragic major plays. Wheeler has a stage full of competent actors; in a few instances - Lindsay Crouse and Christopher Walken - more than competent. But all of them are marching to a different drummer.

There are some occasional savvy touches; Serebryakov's sucking on a sourball while announcing the sale of the estate adds a nice touch of insouciance to an otherwise gloomy moment; Serebryakov's fumbled grasping of his wife's hand while verbally dismissing her cleverly conveys a multiplicity of motives.

But these moments are few and far between. In general, the production is marred by an inconsistent tone and lack of point of view; it remains a cacophony of acting styles, some of which span the centuries. And Chekhov's tale of squandered fortune and wasted lives is lost in this acting free-for-all which is no substitute - entertaining as it is - for well-oiled ensemble.

It is not too facile to describe Mr. Walken's Astrov and Dan Von Bargen's Vanya as plucked from a Mamet original, say ``American Buffalo'' or ``Glengarry Glen Ross,'' while the rest of cast copes gamely with life in turn-of-the-century Russia. Sure, there are moments of psychological updating that move this ``Uncle Vanya'' beyond fin de si`ecle sentimentalizing. But unmodulated by discernible direction, such moments remain at best, unintegrated, and at worst, unjustified.

Mr. Von Bargen, a member of Providence's Trinity Repertory Company, is a thoroughly contemporary actor; and Walken, with his vacant eyes and wild-man haircut, has cut a reputation, at least in films, as an canny interpreter of men half cocked by modern times.

The intensity of these two performances here, however, turns the delicately shaded ``Uncle Vanya'' into a down-and-out male bonding tale.

Never mind Chekhov's lines, or the intricacies of the play's other relationships, this Vanya and Astrov are thoroughly modern Mamet - all neurotic tics, wacko speech cadences that hint at a host of internal demons but reduce Chekhov's philosophic tragedy to the level of 20th-century anxieties.

When Astrov, dispirited but still well intentioned in his doctoring, attempts to forestall Vanya's suicide attempt - on paper a simple demand for the return of a bottle of morphine - on stage becomes a serio-comic, bed-top wrestling match culminating in Vanya's hiding his head under a pillow. So much for soul-killing disillusionment.

Meanwhile the rest of the cast, notably Ms. Crouse as Yelena and Pamela Gien as Sonya, go about their Miss Lonely Hearts business as it might have been conducted in 19th-century Russia.

Yelena is beautiful, bored, and falling out of love with her ailing and demanding husband, Serebryakov (ably played by Alvin Epstein).

Sonya, Yelena's stepdaughter, is homely, bored, and falling in love with Astrov. If their performances are unremarkable (with the exception of the women's very remarkable reconciliation scene), they are at least in period and, in the case of Ms. Gien, in keeping with the play's mood and intent.

As fine an actress as Crouse is, she has the burden of working against type as Yelena, the aging nymphet who incites men to riotous longings simply by entering a room. Crouse, who is about 10 years too old for her role (a problem afflicting many of the cast), wanders about looking as pretty and as bored as her lines demand. But Crouse has an unmistakable aura of authority. When Yelena bemoans her inability to even tutor peasants, Crouse's demeanor tells you she could be running Russia.

Gien is far closer in both spirit and manner to the dowdy and meek Sonya. Earlier this season, Gien played a sexy Texas floozy in another ART production, and it's fun to see her transformed here into the spinster-in-the-making, all hunched shoulders, downcast eyes, and puffy pale face. Hers is not a one-note performance, however. And the scene in which she confesses her love for Astrov is a joy.

``Do I seem silly to you?'' the suddenly buoyant Sonya asks Yelena, thrusting the back of her hand against her mouth. But Gien's eyes convey the smile-through-the-tears, comedy-within-the-tragedy that is Chekhov's hallmark - a far from silly quality that so far eludes the rest of this production.

``Uncle Vanya' continues through May 7.

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