This style of performance becomes tiresome, but it does effectively underline the isolation of the play's ineffectual people, roiled by a sudden change in their lives. The owner of the estate - a vain, successful and ailing academic - has returned with his young wife, upsetting the customary placid routine.
The bored wife exerts a strong attraction on the manager of the estate (the eponymous Vanya) and on a local doctor. Nothing, of course, will come of these infatuations, or with the romantic feelings of the woman's stepdaughter for the doctor.
Truly, as the old line has it, what we have here is a problem of communication. But the deliberate pacing stretches the performance to 3 1/2 hours, well beyond the play's or the audience's tolerance.
Expectations evidently are of a different order in the Soviet Union, where Uncle Vanya reportedly is one of Tovstonogov's great successes. The director, who is in his 70s, heads Leningrad's Gorky Theater; his American debut is an unofficial cultural exchange arranged a year ago between him and Nagle Jackson, the McCarter artistic director, during a luncheon meeting in New York City. Jackson will direct a production at the Gorky next year.
From the McCarter's core acting company, Tovstonogov has elicited performances of precision and authority. All the mature characters are absurd in their self-absorption - Robert Lanchester's Vanya; Jay Doyle's pompous academic, Serebryakov; Michele Farr's beautiful disturber of the peace, Yelena, and even Barry Boys' Dr. Astrov, although the good doctor's ecological fears have made him something of a hero in contemporary Uncle Vanya productions. Only the plain, vulnerable stepdaughter, Sonya (Stacy Ray), is allowed the dignity of unaffected emotion.
This is a carefully mounted production, not only in the handling of the actors but also in the set design of Tovstonogov's colleague, Eduard Kochergin, who accompanied him to the United States and designed the setting as well as the costumes. The rough, wooden frame of the country house forms a kind of proscenium-within-a-proscenium. Shuttered panels adapt the playing area to alternations of indoor and outdoor scenes. In the summer heat, one can hear the buzzing of insects. Yet despite the season, Kochergin's trees are brown and leafless, as if nature itself had dried up with the people living there.
In a production of such abstracted manner, it is probably inevitable that the director would stage the attempted shooting of Serebryakov by Vanya as the broadest kind of farce. Instead of keeping the situation within the bounds of human behavior, Tovstonogov has the cornered Serebryakov shield his face preposterously with roses.
The agreeably workable translation from the Russian is by Michael Henry Heim. The play will be performed Thursday through Sunday of this week and Wednesday through Sunday of next week; the McCarter box-office number is 609-683-8000.