As anyone knows who has seen Cate Blanchett onstage at BAM in recent years, the stunning Australian actress is every bit as compelling in the translucent flesh as she is up close on a big screen.
And so she is again -- if not even more so -- in this eccentric, often absurd yet, in a profound way, deeply true 1950s update of Anton Chekhov's 1897 masterwork of mixed emotions, "Uncle Vanya."
Two things make this justly-celebrated production at the Lincoln Center Festival so much more satisfying than her riveting star turns in the 2006 "Hedda Gabler" and the 2009 "A Streetcar Named Desire." One is the astonishing improvement of the Sydney Theatre Company, which, after four years under the leadership of Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton (author of this bracing, blunt adaptation), is no longer playing background to her luster.
At least as essential is Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, whose exaggerated moody style of middle-European expressionism finds an unexpectedly thrilling match in urbane Australian drollery. Just as Chekhov, bless him, understood how desperation and exhilaration roil together in everyday human tragicomedy, Ascher makes the contradictions visible in split-second moments of physical outrageousness -- as though, for a moment, we have X-ray vision into the violent hungers beneath the civilized words.
Blanchett is elegantly aloof, dressed like an Italian movie star and genuinely funny as Yelena, the languorous, dangerously bored younger wife of an aged, self-important professor whose move from the city disrupts the tedium of the struggling estate. Richard Roxburgh's Vanya is so provocatively likable that we mourn with him for his wasted drone of a life, while Hugo Weaving exquisitely manages debonair hysteria as Astrov, the idealistic doctor.
Who knew how many different kinds of hugs can separate and define human behavior? There is something so delicious about watching three such attractive characters -- in fact, watching all these acutely-etched characters by this first-rate company -- fly so desperately out of control.
By changing the era from gracious pre-revolutionary Russian decay to a time of shabby wood walls and ugly ice boxes, Ascher drastically shifts the look and the feel of the play. Yet, somehow, he never loses Chekhov's eerily-prescient concern for vanishing forests and the judgment of people in 100 years. All this -- and pratfalls and pillow fights. Lovely.
IF YOU GO
WHAT "Uncle Vanya"
WHERE New York City Center, 55th Street, east of Seventh Avenue, through Saturday
INFO Tickets are $25-$200; 212-721-6500; lincolncenterfestival.org
BOTTOM LINE Blanchett in delicious, eccentric, updated Chekhov