by Ben Brantley on September 16, 2018
When did you acquire this new set of ears? You’re watching a play you thought you knew better than you know your best friend, and yet suddenly it sounds different. It’s clearer, truer and more comprehensible than it’s ever been before, as if it had always been operating on a frequency that you’ve only now been given access to.
Such experiences happen seldom to even the most devoted theatergoers. Which is why I’m still shivery, teary-eyed and stunned from seeing Richard Nelson’s devastatingly intimate production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which opened on Sunday night at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College.
I’ve attended at least a dozen versions of “Uncle Vanya: Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts” (to use its full, deceptively straightforward title), performed by the some of the starriest casts ever assembled in the name of Chekhov. A few of them — most recently, one from the Sydney Theater Company, with Cate Blanchett — were thrilling.
But none felt as immediately personal or as emotionally coherent as this Hunter Theater Project production, which features Jay O. Sanders in the title role, giving a career-high performance. Directed by Mr. Nelson — from his limpid, streamlined (105-minute) adaptation with the veteran translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — this is as naked and fully human an “Uncle Vanya” as we’re likely to see.