Cate Blanchett’s come-hither look could turn water to ice.
She’s prowling the vast stage of the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center in the Sydney Theatre Company’s propulsive staging of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Watch out.
The chill in her eyes doesn’t prevent the frustrated men on a shabby-genteel estate from falling foolishly, hopelessly in love with her Yelena, the lethally bored wife of a boorish academic.
None falls 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.
He describes Yelena as a goddess, beautiful and untouchable, and Blanchett in slinky gowns -- cream in the first act, scarlet in the second -- and crowned by a Marilyn Monroe-style blonde ‘do -- 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 has all but moved in for the summer.
When Astrov tries to interest her in his mission to save the countryside from overdevelopment, she can barely conceal the yawns. But later, when anomie urges her to give him a tumble (it doesn’t go well), she blurts out, “You only live once!”
Such anachronisms aren’t as jarring in Andrew Upton’s fleet adaptation as Tamas Ascher’s free-wheeling staging of the play, having its only U.S. outing here. Moving Chekhov’s end-of-the-last-century Russia to the Soviet era, Ascher introduces scenes with what sound like the scores from 1940s cartoons.
This Hungarian director takes Chekhov at his word when he called his moody melodramas of unrequited love and mournful lives comedies.
That split-personality sensibility is also captured in Zsolt Khell’s weathered-pine tomb of a set that makes these people look ever so small.
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 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 the doctor, Astrov (sensitive Hugo Weaving, with muttonchops and a bottomless glass of vodka).
She doesn’t stand a chance against Yelena, whose frustration has made her wily, any more than Vanya can compete with the comparatively suave Astrov.
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 smug Serebryakov tells the hard-working Vanya, “You must do something. Do something!” Some joke.
Through Aug. 27 at the Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center, Washington. Information: +1-202-467-4600; http://www.kennedy-center.org/tickets Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)