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|A CurtainUp Review
You ruined my life you sonuvabitch! I am just as gifted as you -- just as intelligent. I'd send you my short stories and you'd give me your phony praise because you knew I'd keep sending you your goddam checks. But you also filled me with false hopes because you knew that if I was published I would eclipse you! Deny it! Go ahead -- deny it! You told me I wrote like Cheever. Like Mailer. . I BELIEVED YOU! --Jonathan "Jack" Vaughn, Uncle Jack, Act Three by Jeff Cohen
You've ruined my life! I've not lived, not lived, I tell you. . . I'm gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I'd had a normal life I might have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky --Voynitsky, Uncle Vanya, Act Three by Anton Chekhov.
Uncle Jack once again displays Jeff Cohen's knack for reworking a classic play into an original work that manages to retain the story line, characters and mood of its inspirational source. The overall experience will, to borrow from Les Gutman's summary of Brian Friel's adaptation (linked below), be familiar for old friends of Chekhov, and a thoroughly pleasing one for newcomers as well.
As in his updated version of The Seagull, and in fact more successfully so, Cohen has transplanted his characters to American soil -- this time to a farm in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, the geographic setting nicely supported by Steve Bargohetti's and Diane Gioia's original music. The concern for the forests in which Dr. Ashe (nee Dr. Astrov) sublimates his mid-life depression now stems from the damage resulting from strip mining. (Besides drinking he now also smokes reefers). While some Chekhov purists might object to some of the freely modernized dialogue, few will disagree that Uncle Jack makes a powerful case for the enduring timeliness and feelings of sympathetic recognition stirred by Chekhov's malcontents.
Uncle Jack, like its model, is constructed around four acts that take us from April to late August. The household "regulars" include the cynically witty Uncle Jack (Gerald Anthony) and his niece Sophie (Keira Naughton) who have managed the family farm; Elizabeth (Betty Low), the dominating and still social issue minded mother and grandmother; Mary (Leila Danette), an old family retainer; and Waffles (Paul Whitthorne), a guitar playing farm worker who has become part of the family.
There are also the inevitable Chekhovian characters whose arrivals and departures stir up the dull, stagnating pace of every day life: Professor Alexander Kaufmann (nee Alexander Serebryakov played by Ronald Guttman) whose academic life style has been supported by the farm's profits by virtue of his first marriage to Sophie's long deceased mother. That academic career, along with his health and sexual energy having waned, he has decided to retire to the farm with his beautiful young wife Helena (Francesca Faridany) -- a plan which inevitably misfires and makes him feel like "a Russian dissident sent to some Siberia." It is this couple's presence that disrupts the dull but peaceful household, with Jack particularly stirred by feelings of discontent and envy of the beautiful wife, the years of achievement and stimulation. Another outsider is Dr. Ashe (nee Astrov played by Bernard K. Addison) the once promising doctor who visits often as a friend and since Kaufmann's arrival, in his professional capacity.
In the hundred years since Uncle Vanya was first offered by the Imperial Maly Theatre in Moscow there have been many notable actors who've supplied the music for the operatic libretto to which the play has been likened. The music made by the group assembled for the Worth Street's production is generally harmonious and pleasing.
Gerald Anthony's Jack is filled with the proper degree of rage and anguish during the big Act Three confrontation with his brother-in-law. Even more powerful are his less manic scenes with Helena and his finale with Sophie. As for the two young women, Francesca Faridany is attractive enough to make Jack and Dr. Ashe's infatuation with her believable, but her English accent seems out of place. Keira Naughton's seems somewhat too young for Sophie, partly because her attire and hairdo which are clearly designed to emphasize her plainness make her look like a teen ager. Not that there's anything immature about her acting which seems to gain strength with each play she's in.
Ronald Guttman gives the aging professor a hammy, has-been actor flavor. Bernard K. Addison has some fine scenes but, as in his recent appearance in Mirandolina, tends towards scenery chewing, notably when he waxes poetically about his grand plans for saving the forests to Helena and then proceeds to make a fool of himself with his declaration of passion. The minor players range from adequate to good.
Considering the physical constraints of the Tribeca Playhouse, the director deserves credit for dealing with the logistics of creating the feeling of a large home and the surrounding landscape and for getting the actors on and off the miniscule stage. These logistics probably add at least ten minutes to the play -- but not to worry -- Mr. Cohen has managed to create an Uncle Vanya -- oops, I mean Uncle Jack -- that keeps you engaged for the full two and a half hours it takes to move through what British critic Desmond McCarthy described as "life shrieking up the scale of pain till it seemed the very skies might split" and "back to beginning again on the flat."
Uncle Vanya adapted by Brian Friel
Uncle Vanya adapted by Carol Rocamora
Jeff Cohen's Seagull In the Hamptons
CurtainUp's Chekhov Page which includes links to other Chekhov reviews, books