Poor direction can't wreck 'Uncle Vanya',
New YorkUncle Vanya Play by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Andrei Serban. — In their latest encounter, Anton Chekhov has proved more than a match for Andrei Serban. Notwithstanding Mr. Serban's directorial fragmentations and conceptual gimmicks, the strength, humanity, and tenderness of this beautiful tragicomedy survive in the production at the La Mama Annex, on East Fourth Street.
The physical and visual nature of the production underlies the character of the performance Mr. Serban has staged. Designer Santo Loquasto has devised a construct of platforms, ramps, bridges, semibasements, and stairways to fill the very large Annex playing space. The result is that the scurrying actors seldom find it possible to create a sense of ensemble - or even of community. They are transients in the exposed rooms and corridors of the Serebryakov home. What Chekhov called ''scenes from country life'' thus become a stark expose of the country dwellers and their disturbing visitors. There is no hiding place on Mr. Loquasto's plain wood setting except when lighting designer Jennifer Tipton casts dark shadows on the players.
Thanks to some appealing performances, the evening is not altogether a defeat for Chekhov. F. Murray Abraham gives an admirably tempered performance as Astrov , the country doctor whose passion for reforestation falls short of compensating for the disillusionments of life. By turns derisive and eloquent, Astrov's speeches about the destruction of natural resources are as relevant today as when written in 1897. Conservationists would undoubtedly contend that their message is more urgently needed than ever.
Diane Venora conceals Yelyena's latent capacity for passion under a veneer of languorous ennui. It is a portrayal at the same time bold and subtle, a reading that makes both believable and surprising the young woman's sudden, momentary burst of passion. As her elderly husband, the retired professor, James Cahill, images the pampered, self-indulgent, self-important mediocrity whose unremarkable literary achievements have been subsidized by the labors of his daughter, Sonya, and the long-suffering Uncle Vanya.
Frances Conroy is the spinsterly Sonya of this revival - smitten with unrequited love for Astrov - while Joseph Chaikin acts the industrious Vanya, whose lifelong frustrations explode in an attempted homicide that absurdly misfires.
The company also includes Shami Chaikin as the household's indispensable, God-fearing Nanny, Beatrice Manley-Blau as Vanya's fatuous mother, and Muhammad Ghaffari as the impoverished permanent guest whose tuneless strumming adds nothing to the cause of music and little to the atmospherics of this revival. In the Serban concept, Jean-Claude Van Italie's playable new English version is acted without intermission.