Uncle Vanya – 1973
Having been lucky enough to return to the stage from films in the thirties under the unique genius of Jed Harris in “Uncle Vanya”, a second blessing came when I was asked to play Marina, the Nurse, under the direction of the brilliant Mike Nichols.
Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful for the casion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set every thing right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile. (Walter Kerr – NY Times)
Photographs by Ellen Mark
- Conrad Bain – Ilya Ilyich Telegin Waffles
Julie Christie – Yelena Andreyevna
Lillian Gish – Maryina Nanny
Barnard Hughes – Alexander Vladimirovich Serebryakov
Cathleen Nesbitt – Maria Vasilyevna Voinitskaya
George C. Scott – Mikhail lvovich Astrov
Nicol Williamson – Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky Vanya
Elizabeth Wilson – Sofya Alexandrovna Sonya
Rod Loomis – Yefim
R. Mack Miller – Worker
Tom Tarpey – Worker
Stage: Mike Nichols’s ‘Uncle Vanya’
The New York Times Archive – 1973
The difficulty with many all‐star productions of clas sics is simply that on occa sion the stars get in your eyes and you can scarcely see the classic. It is much to Mike Nichols’s credit that this does not happen in his staging of “Uncle Vanya,” which opened last night at the Circle in the Square Joseph E. Levine Theater. Al though at the preview I at tended there were plenty of histrionic sparks, the play it self was never lost sight of.
“Uncle Vanya” at its sim plest level is a play about unfulfillment. No one gets what he wants, and every character, even the bluster ing professor, has to settle for second best. As a piece of playwriting, it is a model of economy, and the action passes Iike the wind through silver birches.
Although “Uncle Vanya” is perhaps less densely textured than either “The Cherry Or chard” or “The Three Sis ters,” it has always main tained a hold on actors and audiences alike, partly, no doubt, because of the aston ishing contrast between the two leading male roles, Van ya and Astrov. These two men, losers both, one a sen timental but rather endear ing fool and the other an ecology‐minded doctor, seem to represent the folly of in decision on the one hand and of circumstances on the other.
It is nearly 30 years since Í first saw “Uncle Vanya” with Ralph Richardson as Vanya and Laurence Olivier as Astrov, and a little more than 10 years since I saw Olivier once again as Astrov, this time opposite Michael Redgrave. Those were duels aria duets of a rare magic. The present Broadway play ers, Nicol Williamson and George C. Scott, are fine enough—particularly perhaps the latter—and they do, un der Mr. Nichols’s direction provide a fascinating con trast in acting styles.
Williamson is an internal actor, Scott is an external actor. With Mr. Williamson everything is withdrawn, hid den, turned in upon itself. He looks ratty and frantic, a man barely in control of himself. His arms flail the air, quixotically, his eyes have a manic gleam. His final climactic act of aggression when he tries, unsuccessfully of course, to shoot his tor mentor, is presented as an uncoordinated gush of pain.
Mr. Scott goes, about his business with a difference. His gravelly, bullfrog voice and his shark’s‐grin charm are both used ver conscious ly. He moves with a calm deliberation, a certainty of purpose. The action of the play is reflected in his face almost as if it were a TV mointor, and the performance —in total variance with Mr. Williamson’s free‐style agony —is beautifully caculated.
There are many splendid aspects of this production, which is probably the closest we have reached in years to a classic staging of national theater dimensions. Obvious ly the most important is this opportunity to compare, con trast and enjoy two major actors going about their busi ness with such successfully differing skills. But Mr. Nichols has also done a good job with a somewhat unequal cast.
The translation, by Albert Todd and Mr. Nichols himself, is fresh and idiomatic. Some people may, in places, find it too idiomatic. I do not. To me it seems to be the privilege of the translator to update, subtly but seriously, a translation to make it more immediate to its audience. And Mr. Nichols’s staging has the same quality of slippered ease and well‐worn informal ity.
For all the advantages of arena staging‐‐‐sand the close presence of actors such as Williamson and Scott has an actual physical force here—it is no particular help to the designer, and it is a great credit to Tony Walton (and the lighting designer, Jules Fisher) how admirable the play looks.
With “Uncle Vanya” there is a terrible tendency for every other actor except Vanya and Astrov to fade into the woodwork, and this terrible tendency has not been avoided here. Julie Christie as Elena, the young wife of the old professor, looks dazzling but seems bland. Against the pyrotech nics thrown at her by Mssrs. Scott and Williamson she seems chaste and unde fended.
Elizabeth Wilson, on the other hand, is a very ex perienced stage actress, and a very fine one, but she is miscast as the unhappy Son ya. She looks, for example, far older than her supposed stepmother, Miss Christie, and althotigh this is possible, it does not appear to help the play. Her performance has little of the special vulner ability called for.
Barnard Hughes blustered effectively enough as the professor, Lillian Gish proved a soft‐toned delight as the old nurse, and Conrad Bain, down at heel but non chalant, was a very good Waffles. Cathleen Nesbitt looked very properly digni fied and yielding as the re luctant matriarch.
This “Uncle Vanya” does have its faults, but at its best it represents precisely the kind of classic theater we desperately need in New York City. This is a very special brand of theatrical excitement.
Lillian Gish in the dressing room – 1973 (Uncle Vanya)
A Too Tearful ‘Vanya’
By WALTER KERR JUNE 10, 1973
AT the beginning of the second half of Circle in the Square’s “Uncle Vanya,” Nicol Williamson starts to enter the drawing room of a Russian country estate, sees that Julie Christie and Elizabeth Wilson are still moping about in it, and promptly with draws without uttering a word. It is the most intelligible move of the eve ning and at the preview I attended the audience laughed its understanding approval.
For Mike Nichols has done the im possible. He has taken a powerhouse of an acting company—George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Nicol Williamson, Cathleen Nesbitt, Elizabeth Wilson, Lil lian Gish—and in effect disassembled it, leaving individual performers to grope heir ways alone through garden fog and parlor fatigues, unmotivated, un related, characterless and crying.
Indeed director and actors seem scarcely to realize that Chekhov has ever been parodied, placing most of their emphases—with great solemnity —on the very mannerisms that are most familiar and have most often been
kidded. Here is the garden swing, in which a bored young lady can loll, away and say how bored she is. The omnipresent samovar, household god indoors and out, more actor’s refuge than tea‐time pause. The guitar, to be picked up and plucked by way of an nouncing that a scene may soon end, though not before some actor’s words have been drowned out in the twang ing. The scenes that end in a sigh, or begin in a sigh, or seem to be sighing between. The tears, the tears, the tears.
What has happened to Mr. Nichols and friends? One can only guess. Though the last effective New York production of “Uncle Vanya” (with Franchot Tone and ‘Clarence Derwent, under David Ross’s direction) made the very most of Chekhov’s claim that he wrote comedy and not endless lamen tation, Mr. Nichols, known primarily as a director of comedy, may not have wanted to put his too‐ready trademark upon it. Plumping for earnestness in stead—and letting occasional unavoid able titters fall where they just do fall —he may have taken much too literally certain remarks made by the despair ing, though often foolish, figures of the piece.
Mr. Scott, as the neighboring doctor forced to spend more time with a list less and hypochondriacal family than he thinks good for him, does point out, in a summarizing speech, that the group is rudderless, emotionally barren, incapable of “spontaneous, free rela tionships” with nature or with one another. And what Mr. Scott is saying is to a considerable degree true, though he himself may not be aware of how kinky his own passion for forestry is.
But the fact that charac ters’ lives lack a pattern does not mean that a play can stand unpatterned. The very point itself must be made into a design that dis plays it if people’s lives lack cohesion we must be given a cohesive vision of that. Instead, we watch wan derers, fine actors roaming slippered through the night in search of a tone—some tone, any tone—they can all sound together.
Their inability to find one is in part due to the ex tremely awkward shape of the new playing area at Circle in the Square. The long horseshoe curve—bor rowed from the Circle’s old quarters downtown but stretched out like taffy here —is simply too long: an ac, for stationed near the pine wood back wall trying to make contact with another stationed on the front curve near the samovar had better be trained in semaphore. It can be done: at one point Mr. Scott, whose burning bush eyes penetrate dis tances and brush away ob stacles better than most people’s, raps out a sudden “don’t you agree, Madame?” to Miss Christie miles away —he is speaking over the heads of three or four lan guorous comnanions —and, in the bristling silence he creates, the actor simply cleaves the space. But it takes a George C. Scott in tensity to do it, and even then we cannot keep both figures in visual focus at once: our own eyes are busy
Thus the event is both physically and psychologi cally fragmented, with each performer left to fend for himself, hoping against hope that at some vanishing‐point out in the auditorium sep arate values may coalesce,
contrive to make sense. It doesn’t happen, and in the circumstances one can only ‘clutch at straws, taking such pleasure in passing as is passing.
The straws exist. Near the end of the first half Eliza Beth Wilson, forlornly in love with Mr. Scott but a prisoner of plainness since childhood, fixes her wasted smile and decides to become friends with her stepmother, Miss Christie. The decision made, a spring of giddy joy deep inside her is released: now she is a blushing school girl again, bubbling too much, suppressing laughter by clapping her hands to her mouth, darting in a dozen directions like a joyous ani mal caged so long it is be wildered by freedom. Her quieter gestures during this period of revelation are ex quisite, too. Putting her hand out to Mr. Scott and then snatching it back be fore he can notice, or strok ing Miss Christie’s golden hair with a motherly appro bation that is part envy, the actress is
Even more striking is Nicol Williamson’s outburst once he hears that the estate he has lived on and helped to maintain is to be sold. Mr. Williamson is the Uncle Van ya of the piece, fifth wheel forever, stretching himself out of morning stupors only to take a little more vodka than is wise, winding up at Miss Christie’s feet drunken ly pawing her nightgown. But if he has accepted his status as eternal also‐ran, a core of resentment has been building up inside him, a re sentment that seems nearly to electrocute him the mo it is released.
The quiver of his body now threatens to tear his frame apart as he spews words faster than his brain can form them, the gasp of disbelief in his throat nearly strangling him while he plunges on. As a rush of un welcome truths pours out in the uncontrollable hysteria, we feel much more than embarrassment for this inef fectual man who knows he is being ineffectual even as he fights. We feel consider able sympathy: when a fail ure finally lets loose his fury, and fails at that as well, we are unexpectedly moved.
And the futile ferocity of the outburst proves to be the perfect springboard for what follows: Vanya’s firing a pis tol at the man who has be trayed him, and missing. The moment —inevitably farce, with the pompous professor ducking behind furniture while Vanya proves he can not so much as shoot straight—is the most ticklish in the play, particularly in a production that means to be as dolorous as this one. But Mr. Williamson has pitched his man to such shattering irrationality that the gesture can be absorbed easily. It remains funny without contradicting our serious concern for its real
Otherwise we must wait long and listen hard for small comforts. Mr. Scott is always intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for the part he is playing; surveying the others with so much wisdom, he seems not only to tolerate them but the untidy play as well. His detachment is quite total, though he gets at least one brief opportunity to bare his teeth and invite the predatory Miss Christie to sink fangs into him. Miss Christie herself is bland in her often‐announced ennui, unable to cope with a sec ond‐half soliloquy and bur dened—late in the play—with a wig that makes her look as though she had walked through a meringue factory. Barnard Hughes
and Conrad Bain do not define themselves firmly enough to let us see precisely where they fit into the mosaic of the play, but Cathleen Nes bitt is regally severe and arrestingly handsome as a leftover widow and Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful for the casion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set every thing right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile.
On the whole, the produc tion is one in which every body seems ailing, not just the fatuous tyrant who rules the household from a wheel chair. The evening turns into a competition to see who is unhappiest, and can prove it; even Miss Wilson is finally asked to dab at her eyes once too often. In all of the moisture, the essential work does not get done. The peo ple, so drowsily severed from one another, never really succeed in compelling our deep interest in their respective isolations, never persuade us that their wasted lives are fascinating wastes well worth exploring. It so happens that I was on the point of scribbling a note to this effect at the precise moment Mr. Scott turned to Miss Christie and said, “I can see that this doesn’t in terest you,” startling me no end. But perhaps that is what I mean by Mr. Nichols taking certain lines too literally. His premise would seem to be that if a charac ter isn’t interested in what is being said, then what is said dare not be interesting. But this is fatal. With some of the most enlivening ac tors in the world at his com mand, a director has let the bored bore us.
Photo: Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes at the opening of Uncle Vanya 1973 June 4