WELLFLEET — As an adaptor and actor, Robert Kropf — a founding member of the scrappy theater collective Harbor Stage Company — can’t be beat. He has an ear for phrases that shake off the fustiness of literality, the better to dance, and a genius for echoing the ways in which Chekhov managed to embed the great existential questions in seemingly ordinary dialogue. When casual remarks that you overhear during intermission start to sound like profound musings on the meaning of life, you know you’ve been well-steeped in this timeless world.
Last season Kropf directed a pared-down “Seagull” that was a sheer delight: Harbor Stage’s production was so well-received, it transferred to Boston, where it met with further favor. This time, however, in re-assuming the director’s role on top of his other duties, Kropf has perhaps overextended himself. Where “The Seagull” soared, “Uncle Vanya” plods — except for a superlative performance by new company member Justin Campbell in the title role.
As in Harbor Stage’s “Seagull,” age differences have been muddied a bit. We’re not accustomed to seeing so young and vital a Vanya; here he seems but a few years older than his hard-working niece, Sonya (whom Amie Lytle plays with an unrelenting air of pained befuddlement). Jeff Zinn, who cofounded WHAT in this fishing-shack-turned-theater in 1985, is well cast as Serebryakov, the pompous professor — formerly married to Vanya’s late sister — who has been sponging off the farmstead’s proceeds for years and now, his health failing, has sought refuge with his much-younger new wife, Yelena (Stacy Fischer).
The casting of Fischer is somewhat problematic, in that Yelena is meant to be a careless beauty, an inveterate flirt, and Fischer — though perfectly attractive — has features that bespeak anxiety: Her large eyes seem to beg for approval. It does not help that her costuming — the uncredited costumes are all vaguely contemporary — is just awful. Meant to come across as a fashionable transplant, this Yelena looks as if she’d made a pit stop at Kmart en route to the country.
“Ahhhh! The bloody boredom of the country!” — one of Chekhov’s favored motifs, especially when voiced by spoiled, pretty women. In this play he posited a passionate defender of the unspoiled countryside in the possibly semi-autobiographical Dr. Astroff (Kropf’s self-directed role). But again, expectations end up breached. We’re accustomed to encountering Astroff as a chronic inebriate, true, but essentially a grounded force for good (he’s a passionate defender of forest life: in this version he pontificates about climate change).
Like all the men in Yelena’s orbit, Astroff is ineluctably drawn to her, but he’s rarely depicted — as Kropf does here — as an outright churl, blaming Yelena for casting a spell and reacting furiously when she fends off his advances. Compound Kropf’s free-handed adaptation with his innate intensity as an actor, and the result is a scene that is all too charged.
Campbell’s Vanya is likewise enamored of Yelena and likewise embittered, not only out of unrequited love, but because he now believes that he has spent his life in service to a sham intellectual. It’s a pity that Campbell must enact a good portion of the play sporting low-slung jeans and a Che beret that makes everything he does or say seem silly.
Also, if you’re going to contemporize Chekhov, why wind down to the scritch of nibbed pens on paper, as Vanya and Sonya resume the work that she fervently hopes — in what is ordinarily the most moving of speeches — may prove their ultimate salvation?
Financial strictures no doubt shaped most of the choices made in this latest Harbor Stage venture. Still, many elements warrant the investment of one’s time and very little money (they keep their ticket prices low on principle). If you go, you might want to toss in a little something extra to help boost the next show’s production values.Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.