‘Uncle Vanya’ takes a trip to the Jersey Shore

Uncle Vanya Hudson Theatre review

PHOTOS BY CHASE NEWHART

Meredyth Kenney and Kevin Cristaldi co-star in Hudson Theatre Works’ “Uncle Vanya” at Weehawken’s Wilson School, through Oct. 28.

It’s the winter of 2016, and the memory of Hurricane Sandy still weighs heavily on the devastated community surrounding a rundown B&B in Mantoloking. There, a lonely man barely staggers through life with the help of his niece, the daughter of his dead sister. They find their mundane lives occasionally interrupted by visits from the man’s only friend, an alcoholic doctor. Then the man’s elderly brother-in-law, a pretentious professor, visits with his beautiful, young second wife in tow. And these sad, quiet, painfully pedestrian lives erupt into a tumult of repressed feelings and pain.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” but in this new production by Hudson Theatre Works, playwright Michael Puzzo has updated the story and moved it to the Shore, adding the subtitle “Scenes From a Jersey Life in Four Acts.” And surprisingly, it works remarkably well.

Scholars always focus on Chekhov’s gloomier side, but “Uncle Vanya” was meant to be a comedy, and this excellent cast and director Frank Licato (who is also Hudson Theatre Works’ artistic director) keep the laughs coming throughout the evening. Kevin Cristaldi, as Vanya, strikes the perfect balance between venomous bitterness and crippling self-pity, delivering zingers left and right. When noting that his pompous brother-in-law considers himself a documentarian (even though he has only finished one modestly successful film), Vanya explains to his niece that “documentaries are the broccoli of the film world, and ‘hit documentary’ is an oxymoron.”

Meredyth Kenney and Vincent Sagona in “Uncle Vanya.”

The entire cast provides riveting performances, from Beatriz Esteban-Messina as Nanita, the B&B’s much put-upon housekeeper, to the slow-witted handyman Pocky (Gregory Erbach) who serenades the house with Beatles tunes, to the twisted members of the family: Vanya, his disapproving mother (Joanne Hoersch), his niece Sonia (Bess Miller), his self-obsessed brother-in-law Alexander (Michael Folie), Alexander’s second wife Helena (Meredyth Kenney) and Vanya’s only friend, Dr. Mike (Vincent Sagona.)

All the familiar Chekhovian themes emerge as this household interacts and slowly combusts. Each in their own way, Vanya, Alexander and Dr. Mike all feel as if they’ve wasted their lives. Vanya deludes himself by thinking he could have been one of the great minds of his generation if he’d only applied himself and hadn’t had to provide for his widowed mother; Alexander thinks of himself as an artist, even though he’s spent most of his life as an academician; and Dr. Mike hates his truncated life in this miserable little town, where most of his practice involves rescuing victims of the opioid crisis. His personable and intelligent exterior is stripped away scene by scene until the ugliness underneath becomes painfully
evident.

And of course with Chekhov, there’s unattainable love: Sonia lusts for Dr. Mike; both Dr. Mike and Vanya yearn for Alexander’s wife, Helena. Helena’s not sure why she married a sick old man like Alexander; and Alexander wonders why his beautiful young bride stays with him.

When Alexander suggests selling the B&B and using the proceeds to fund his retirement and provide a stipend for the others, Vanya explodes and everyone’s true feelings come boiling out, resulting in gunshots and confessions and long-repressed feelings.

Kevin Cristaldi in “Uncle Vanya.”

It might sound like a collection of archetypes colliding on a stage, but the brilliance of this production makes every character — even the minor ones — come across as flesh-and-blood people, each with their own peccadilloes and problems and dreams. Chekhov reveled in using his characters’ surroundings to define them, and here the play does that with iPads and FEMA trailers, Alexa, and Donald Trump.

Kudos to Vincent Sagona, who brings nuanced emotions to Dr. Mike, a man who finds himself slipping into middle age with little to show for it and a growing inability to rein in his weaknesses; and to Michael Folie, for never overplaying Alexander, making the man’s narcissism and sense of privilege completely
convincing.

Hudson Theatre Works, which used to present works at both Weehawken High School and the town’s Water Tower, now uses the auditorium of Weehawken’s Wilson School (where, coincidentally, I attended junior high). The audience sits in folding chairs with the play’s only set — the living room of Vanya’s B&B — on the floor in front of them, providing a bracing sense of intimacy. Despite the
surroundings (the school is mostly abandoned, and looks like it hasn’t been renovated in decades), the sound and lighting are first-rate. The costumes look so much like what real people would wear that you can forget you’re watching a play, although I did get a kick out of Vanya’s collection of vintage T-shirts.

The Wilson School is located at 80 Hauxhurst Ave. in Weehawken. The show runs Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., through October 28. Visit hudsontheatreworks.brownpapertickets.com.

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