By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated July 20, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
Lisa Tomasetti

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya will be performed at NYC’s Lincoln Center Festival from July 20 through July 28, 2012. What follows is our review of the same production, with the same cast, that was performed last summer at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, originally published on Aug 10, 2011.]

There’s something rather funny about the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (now playing at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center through Aug. 27). Not funny-peculiar, though casting 42-year-old Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as 27-year-old trophy wife Yelena might seem a stretch. (Then again, it is her theater company — she runs STC with her husband, Andrew Upton — and she does have that porcelain-perfect makeup-commercial complexion…) And Vanya fans may not remember Astrov (The Lord of the Rings‘ Hugo Weaving) as a badass leather-clad doctor zooming around on a motorcycle from one plague-ridden peasant to another, but Hungarian director Tamás Ascher has set his Vanya in the 1950s — which also explains Blanchett’s Grace Kelly?meets?Marilyn Monroe costumes. No, the really funny thing — besides Jacki Weaver’s Ugly Betty eyebrows (the Animal Kingdom Oscar nominee is nearly unrecognizable as the babushka-wrapped doddering old nanny Marina) — is, as it turns out, Chekhov himself.

Though no one gets shot in a duel or kills themselves, Uncle Vanya is, in a sense, Chekhov’s most depressing play: two and a half hours of unrequited passion, loveless marriage, and monologues dedicated to the futility of human existence. Thank goodness there’s a loaded gun on the set. (In Chekhov, there is always a loaded gun somewhere on the set.) Yet Ascher knows that depression doesn’t have to be a total downer: He’s turned glamazon Yelena’s bonding scene with her ”plain” stepdaughter Sonya (a sensational Hayley McElhinney) into a giggly vodka-soaked slumber party, pillow fight and all. He sends a drunken Astrov tumbling butt-first out a window into a rainstorm. (Turns out Weaving is a surprisingly gifted physical comedian — as is Blanchett, who does a dynamite drunk scene.) And when he’s not bemoaning how he ”wasted his life so stupidly,” even Uncle Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) — the poster boy for pessimism — has his jocular moments. Yelena: ”Lovely day, today. Not hot.” Vanya: ”Lovely day to hang yourself.” Upton provides the very sharp English adaptation.

Yet even as the production inserts a few extra comic elements, Ascher doesn’t gloss over the play’s tragic undertow. He actually enhances it. There are still empty, aching voids: Vanya forlornly gazing at Yelena like a lovesick teenager from across the room; simmering stews of anger, as when Yelena shuns her cruel, crotchety old husband, Serebryakov (John Bell); emotionally charged silences as desperately-in-love Sonya enjoys a midnight snack with a completely oblivious Astrov. Chekhov is always about what’s left unsaid; never has his subtext been so explicit as in this superb production. A

(Tickets for 2012 N.Y. performances:

(Tickets [as originally published in 2011]: or 800-444-1324)