Living with her boorish, aging husband on a rural Russian estate, Yelena emanates a chilly hauteur that doesn’t prevent a horde of men from falling hopelessly in love with her.
None harder than the sad-sack Vanya, who has managed the estate for a quarter-century, supporting Yelena’s husband, Serebryakov, previously married to Vanya’s sainted sister.
Vanya describes Yelena as a goddess, beautiful and untouchable. Blanchett in slinky gowns -- cream in the first act, scarlet in the second -- fits the bill.
Bringing her an armful of fresh-picked roses, Vanya stumbles humiliatingly on Yelena in an illicit clinch with Astrov, the local doctor, a vegetarian proto-tree-hugger so smitten he’s all but moved in for the summer.
When Astrov tries to interest her in his mission to save the countryside from overdevelopment, Yelena can barely conceal the yawns.
The fleet adaptation is by Blanchett’s husband and co- company head, Andrew Upton. Tamas Ascher’s free-wheeling staging of the play, moves Chekhov’s end-of-the-last-century Russia to the Soviet era. Ascher introduces scenes with what sound like the scores from 1940s cartoons and opera recordings.
This Hungarian director takes Chekhov at his word when he called his moody melodramas of unrequited love and mournful lives comedies. There’s some slapstick silliness, and the star proves herself adept at physical comedy.
That split-personality sensibility is also captured in Zsolt Khell’s weathered-pine tomb of a set, making these people look ever so small. (Their voices occasionally get lost in City Center’s echo-chamber auditorium.)
Yelena and Serebryakov (John Bell, a vision of practiced rectitude) have been summering at the estate. It’s home to Vanya and his niece, Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter. Richard Roxburgh plays Vanya in a raffish, libidinous performance of bottled rage that turns deeply moving when he finally explodes.
Plain-jane Sonya (Hayley McElhinney, in a nuanced, restrained performance) is unknowingly competing with her step- mother for the attention of Astrov (rakishly sensitive Hugo Weaving).
Sonya doesn’t stand a chance against Yelena, whose frustration has made her wily, any more than Vanya can compete with the comparatively suave doctor.
And so this “comedy” ends in a way that predicts Samuel Beckett, with deep-rooted characters in existential paralysis. Taking his leave with Yelena, the clueless, bombastic Serebryakov tells Vanya, Sonya and everyone else on the blighted estate, “You must do something. Do something!” Some joke.
Through Saturday at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +212-581-1212; http://nycitycenter.org. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.