Putting the audience on couches sounds like a swell idea. Upholstered seating would seem to be a welcome alternative to those stiff green meanies you have to sit on in the main space at the Wyly Theatre. The chairs in the upstairs venues in that building are designed to remind patrons how comfortable standing on one foot can be. So for the new production of Uncle Vanya, Dallas Actor's Lab has outfitted the ninth floor Wyly studio with a dozen gray sofas, arranged in a rectangle around the narrow acting space.
Here's the reality: Being wedged next to strangers on a two-cushion Chesterfield for three hours, in a hot room no less, makes for an awful evening at the theater. And furniture is the least of the problems with this Uncle Vanya.
Anton Chekhov's four-act drama has been adapted anew by Annie Baker (from a translation by Margarita Shalina). Baker leads the hot list of New York playwrights right now, having earned the 2014 Pulitzer for The Flick, her three-hour play set in an old movie house. Undermain Theatre just did that one with a ridiculously good cast of local actors (Alex Organ, Mikaela Krantz and Jared Wilson). They connected with the fresh informality of Baker's writing style. She telescopes down the dramatic mise-en-scène to make dialogue feel natural and overheard. Characters speak in casual blurts in her plays, talking over each other and taking long pauses. At Undermain, they did all of that with pinpoint precision. Nothing felt contrived or gimmicky. The Flick went by in a flash.
Everything Undermain director Blake Hackler and The Flick actors did right, Dallas Actor's Lab director Dylan Key and the actors in Uncle Vanya do wrong. Set on a hot summer day and night, but performed with the house lights on throughout, this Vanya's three hours drag by like a long Russian winter.
The script isn't the problem; it's the performances. Chekhov is tricky for actors because his plays are studies in ennui. In Uncle Vanya a bunch of depressed Russians sit around a living room arguing and drinking tea. They yearn for love, money and excitement — and get none of those. The visiting country doctor, Astrov (played at the Wyly by a semi-comatose Kyle Lemieux), arrives to treat the old professor (wooden Eric Devlin), but is secretly in love with the old man's hot, much-younger wife, Yelena (scowling Janielle Kastner). Yawning intellectual Vanya (energy-free David Goodwin) loves Yelena, too. Vanya's spinster sister Sonya (droopy Katherine Bourne) pines for the doctor, who cares more for pine trees than for Sonya (he delivers speeches on forestry ... forestry). Everyone's in love with the wrong person. And they're all bored, bored, bored. "This is excruciating," says Sonya. Sister, you don't know the half.
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Baker's way with Chekhov is to deflate dialogue down to modern conversational idioms. In his day, Chekhov's writing was as authentic-sounding as Baker's. She scruffs up his wording even more, inserting the kind of non sequiturs heard at a family gathering where everybody's talking but nobody's listening.
Trying for Baker's air of relaxed spontaneity, Dallas Actor's Lab's actors just come off as lazy and dull. They mumble in flat, lifeless tones and slouch like sullen school kids. Everyone wears a hangdog expression and a rumpled plaid shirt. In going for "intimacy" and "immediacy," they disregard the 12 couches crowded with sweaty patrons straining to hear what they're saying. You lose not just a word here and there, but whole scenes, swallowed down the gullets of mush-mouthed thesps. Their pauses are beyond Walken-esque.
Chekhov and Baker created characters who are bored. Here the actors are boring, resulting in a production so stultifying, the sofas become the most expressive shapes in the room.
Uncle Vanya continues through February 22 at the Wyly Theatre 9th Floor Studio, 2400 Flora St. Tickets, $20, 214-871-5000 or ticketdfw.com.