This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

THOM PAIN (based on nothing)

(photo © 2018 Joan Marcus)

A man (Michael C. Hall) examines his life in Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) (photo © 2018 Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through December 9, $35-$65

At the entrance to the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, a sloppily handwritten sign says, “Pardon Our Appearance.” The theater inside seems to be in the midst of some serious construction: There’s a huge hole in the floor at the front of the stage, which is littered with various pieces of equipment, and protective sheets hang on the walls and from the ceiling, as if preventing the place from collapsing. Amy Rubin’s deteriorating set matches the crumbling mind of Thom Pain, superbly played by Michael C. Hall, in the Signature revival of Will Eno’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Thom Pain (based on nothing), which opened last night. Pain is the epitome of the unreliable narrator, beginning jokes and stories he never finishes, posing repeated questions that he answers differently each time, and inviting audience participation only to then take it back. “How wonderful to see you all,” he says at the start, in near-complete darkness save for the occasional light from his cigarette. The seventy-minute monologue, previously performed by James Urbaniak and, more recently, Rainn Wilson in LA in 2012, touches on such notions as time and memory, fear and loneliness. Wearing an everyman-style standard suit (the costume is by Anita Yavich), Pain walks back and forth across the deep stage and wanders through the audience as he indifferently relates a tale about a young boy, his dog, and a puddle, possibly a scene from his past that left him emotionally scarred. “When did your childhood end?” he asks rhetorically. “How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn’t it wonderful how we never recover? Injuries and wounds, ladies and gents. Slights and abuses, oh, what a paradise.”

(photo © 2018 Joan Marcus)

Michael C. Hall is mesmerizing as the title character in Thom Pain (based on nothing) at the Signature (photo © 2018 Joan Marcus)

He self-referentially refers to the show as “our little turn, on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice-versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.” He steps in and out of darkness courtesy of Jen Schriever’s sharp lighting design. “Does it scare you? Being face-to-face with the modern mind? It should. There is no reason for you not to be afraid. None. Or, I don’t know,” he says. He makes direct eye contact with as many audience members as he can, searching for connections that have otherwise eluded him. “As for our story, if you’re lost at all, you’re not alone,” he tells us. “Don’t think I’m somewhere out ahead, somewhere, anywhere, with a plan. I’m right here beside you, or hiding behind you, like you, in terrible pain, trying to make sense of my life. I’m just kidding — you probably are alone. Or, I don’t know. Where are we, exactly, I wonder, in your estimation, in mine.” By the end, we know everything about him, as well as nothing, his search for relevancy perhaps evoking our own.

Hall, the Dexter and Six Feet Under star who has excelled on Broadway in Eno’s The Realistic Joneses and John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch and off Broadway in Ivo van Hove’s Lazarus, is outstanding as Pain, a role that Eno (Title and Deed, The Open House, Wakey, Wakey, all at the Signature) notes in the script should be played by an “actor [who] must also create a character that is close to — and largely derived from — himself.” Hall keeps us mesmerized with just the right amount of confusion to make us wonder what is real and what isn’t, what is truth and what is not. When he asks several times if we like magic, he is also referring to the magic of theater, which Eno and director Oliver Butler (The Open House, What the Constitution Means to Me) tear down rather elegantly. It’s a disorienting yet exhilarating experience, a journey into the digressive nature of life, constantly under construction, and the mind of a man trying to find his place in the world, just like we all are.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

Kristin Miller (Stockard Channing) has a lot to say to her son Peter (Hugh Dancy) and his girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon), in Apologia (photo by Joan Marcus)

Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 30, $99

Successful art historian and proud humanist Kristin Miller (Stockard Channing) makes no apologies for the choices she’s made in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, which continues at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through November 30. An ex-pat living in the English countryside, Kristin is an uncompromising feminist and atheist who gave up custody of her children in order to pursue her career in Europe. On a spring day in 2009, she is expecting company for dinner, including her son Peter (Hugh Dancy), his new girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon), her other son, Simon (also Dancy), his girlfriend, Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Kristin’s longtime friend, Hugh (John Tillinger). As they arrive, serious religious and socioeconomic conversations ensue, and it quickly becomes clear that Kristin respects no one as much as she does her own opinion. “Still raping the Third World?” she asks Peter, who responds, “If helping local initiatives and infrastructure projects off the ground is considered rape then, yes, brutally.” When she learns that Trudi is a vegetarian and a faithful Christian who met Peter at a prayer meeting, she digs in her talons. “I believe in mystery, imagination, and the power of myth and metaphor. But not in outmoded patriarchal propaganda,” she declares. When Claire, an actress, announces that her contract on a television series has been extended, all are happy for her except Kristin, who is quick to insult the program. “It was a little vacuous. I kept asking myself, ‘Why do people watch this? And why do they make it?’” But when the subject turns to Kristin’s latest book, a memoir called Apologia, the tension ratchets up, since she failed to mention anything about her sons or her family in it. But she’s not about to apologize for that either, as is evident when she explains what the title means: “a formal, written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.”

(photo by Jenny Anderson)

Hugh Dancy, Talene Monahon and Megalyn Echikunwoke in rehearsal for Apologia (photo by Jenny Anderson)

Tony winner Channing (Other Desert Cities, Six Degrees of Separation) is passionate and unrelenting as Kristin, who was English in the original version. She manages to keep the selfish, smug, and snarky writer from becoming too villainous or a mere relic from a different time; you keep wanting Kristin to say or do the right thing even though she never does, instead insisting on exploiting her supposed moral and intellectual superiority over everyone. She’s also not afraid to be exactly who she is; when she is given a Nigerian mask as a birthday present, she doesn’t hide her distaste. And it’s more than just a plot device that her oven isn’t working so she won’t be able to make dinner, a typically motherly responsibility. Dancy (Venus in Fur, The Pride) excels as both sons, whose names reference one of Jesus’s disciples, Simon Peter. Tillinger, a director who was lured back to the stage by Channing for this production — they starred together in Peter Nichols’s Joe Egg on Broadway in 1985 — does his best with Hugh, a relatively thankless part that merely serves as comic relief; when he departs Dane Laffrey’s book- and art-heavy set, his character is not really missed. Three-time Obie-winning director Daniel Aukin (Bad Jews, Admissions) guides the actors through some familiar, clichéd territory that is too straightforward and borders on just the kind of drama Kristin argues that Claire acts in. “She’s a bloody nightmare,” Peter tells Trudi. “Opinionated, didactic, dictatorial.” But that doesn’t mean she isn’t bold, brave, and heroic in her own way.


(photo by Richard Termine)

Estragon (Aaron Monaghan) and Vladimir (Marty Rea) pass the time in Druid’s Waiting for Godot at White Light Festival (photo by Richard Termine)

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
November 2-13, $55-$95

While celebrity casting certainly helps sell tickets, sometimes it can make a show more about the actors than the play itself. Regardless of the quality of the production, it’s often hard to separate the stars from roles, to judge the work by the writing and direction instead of the famous faces. Such has been the case with Samuel Beckett’s mid-nineteenth-century absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Here in New York City, Mike Nichols’s 1988 Lincoln Center revival featured Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham, and Lukas Haas; a 2009 Broadway adaptation boasted Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover, and Irwin; and a 2013 Broadway smash had Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley. New Yiddish Rep’s 2013 reimagined version in Yiddish, Vartn Af Godot, might not have had well-known actors, but the translation became the star. (It’s back for an encore engagement this winter at the 14th St. Y.) So it’s thrilling to see Irish theater company Druid’s adaptation at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater, where it continues through November 13 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. The cast, at least here in America, is unknown, and they speak in Beckett’s native Irish tongue (even if the work was originally written in French), so the play’s the thing.

(photo by Richard Termine)

Lucky (Garrett Lombard) finally has a lot to say in Waiting for Godot at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (photo by Richard Termine)

The tall and thin Marty Rea is Vladimir, or Didi, with shorter and stouter Aaron Monaghan as Estragon, or Gogo, somewhat reminiscent of Abbott and Costello. Francis O’Connor’s set features a leafless, curved tree and a smooth stone, possibly polished from years of Gogo sitting on it. O’Connor also designed the costumes, which include the two leads’ black, semi-homeless wear, bowler hats, and Gogo’s decrepit shoes, which have left one of his feet bloody. As they wait for Godot even though they have no idea why, they mutter about the burden of being human, dancing, crucifixion, and time. “We’ve no rights any more?” Gogo asks. “You’d make me laugh if it wasn’t prohibited,” Didi responds. “We’ve lost our rights?” Gogo repeats. “We got rid of them,” Didi answers. They get to the heart of the matter when Didi explains, “One is what one is. . . . The essential doesn’t change.”

They are confused when a boisterous man named Pozzo (Rory Nolan) shows up, dragging an apparent slave, Lucky (Garrett Lombard), with him; Lucky is not so lucky, carrying lots of luggage and being pulled by a noose. A noose had previously been referred to when Didi and Gogo examined the bare tree and considered hanging themselves from it, at one point curving their bodies to match the bend in the tree. And in each act a boy (either Nathan Reid or Jaden Pace) confuses them even further. Tony winner Garry Hynes’s (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan) direction makes such connections clearer than usual, allowing the audience to glory in Beckett’s language, from very funny conversations to a dizzying monologue delivered by Lucky. “That passed the time,” Didi says. “It would have passed in any case,” Gogo replies. “Yes, but not so rapidly,” Didi concludes. This two-and-a-half-hour production is more than a fine way to pass the time, offering a fresh, comic look at an old favorite.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

Janet McTeer stars as Sarah Bernhardt in new play by Theresa Rebeck (photo by Joan Marcus)

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 18, $59-$159

When turn-of-the-twentieth-century theater superstar Sarah Bernhardt played the Melancholy Dane in Hamlet at the Adelphi in London, actress and writer Elizabeth Robins wrote in her December 1900 review: “Madame Bernhardt’s assumption of masculinity is so cleverly carried out that one loses sight of Hamlet in one’s admiration for the tour de force of the actress. This is not to say that she gives us a man, but rather Sarah Bernhardt playing, with amazing skill, a spirited boy; doing it with an impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.” Much the same can be said of Tony-winning actress Janet McTeer, who plays Bernhardt playing Hamlet in Theresa Rebeck’s uneven though often exciting Bernhardt/Hamlet, a celebration not only of Bernhardt but of the collaborative process of theater. The Roundabout production, continuing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, is set in 1897 Paris, where Bernhardt has decided to play the male part and is rehearsing with Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker), François (Triney Sandoval), Raoul (Aaron Costa Ganis), and Lysette (Brittany Bradford). Bernhardt’s lover, the married Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), is not fond of her decision. “You want to be a man,” he tells her. “I do not want to be a man,” she replies. “You crave a man’s power,” he accuses her. “No man has more power than I do,” she says. “Shakespeare does,” he retorts. But she has the last word, proclaiming, “I will not go back to playing flowers for you fools. Not because I am too old. But because I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) watches Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker) perform in Bernhardt/Hamlet at the American Airlines Theatre (photo by Joan Marcus)

Bernhardt demands that Rostand rewrite Hamlet specifically for her, but soon he is working on another play, Cyrano de Bergerac, which also gets her juices flowing. The same cannot be said for Rostand’s rightly jealous wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere); Bernhardt’s teenage son, Maurice (Nick Westrate); and acerbic critic Louis (Tony Carlin), wielding his poisoned pen with undeserved power. Meanwhile, Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar) hovers around, creating the poster for the controversial show; in Shakespeare’s time, men might have played all the parts, but in the late Victorian/Edwardian era, a woman portraying the title character in the Bard’s greatest work is practically theater — and gender — treason. “And now we come to your tragedy,” Edmond says to Sarah, who responds, “I am not a tragic figure.” Edmond explains, “You are Sarah Bernhardt. But Sarah Bernhardt is a woman. And people do not want to see a woman play Hamlet.” To which Sarah argues, “I do not play him as a woman! I play him as myself.

Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Present Laughter, Hand to God), Bernhardt/Hamlet works best when it sticks to its title, when McTeer plays Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet. A lot of the rest is detritus that only gets in the way. McTeer (Mary Stuart, God of Carnage) is a joy to watch as her character, complete with crazy hairstyle, questions Hamlet’s motives as well as Shakespeare’s, romping around Beowulf Borrit’s handsome sets, which include an outdoor Paris café, the Adelphi stage, and Bernhardt’s elegant dressing room. Rebeck’s (Seminar, Downstairs) plot meanders; it feels like she tries to squeeze too much in and doesn’t trust that the audience will get the shock factor of Bernhardt’s ambition, especially in this modern era in which so much casting is gender (and race) blind. For example, in 2016, McTeer starred as Petruchio in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte. But then McTeer proclaims, “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here, / But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul,” and all is right again.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

MCC’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play is back for an encore run at the Lucille Lortel (photo by Joan Marcus)

MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St. between Bleecker & Hudson Sts.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 9, $49-$115

Following its initial run last fall, MCC’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, which earned a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble, is back at the Lucille Lortel Theatre for an encore engagement running through December 9. Below is an update of twi-ny’s original review from November 2017, with the new dates and actors added.

Actress Jocelyn Bioh’s professional playwriting debut is a sharp, uproarious tale of a clique of young boarding school students in central Ghana who can be as nasty as they wanna be, able to go toe-to-toe with Cady, Regina, Gretchen, Janis, and Karen from Mark Waters’s 2004 hit movie, Mean Girls. Bioh, who has appeared in such plays as Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody and An Octoroon, and Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, even references the film, which was written by Tina Fey (and the musical adaptation of which has been extended on Broadway through July 7), in the title of her show, School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, which is back for an encore engagement at the Lucille Lortel through December 9. It’s 1986, and the students at Aburi Girls Boarding School are getting ready to audition for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant. Paulina Sarpong (MaameYaa Boafo) is the egotistical, narcissistic leader of a group of girls, willing to say or do just about anything to remain in charge. She brags about her soccer-playing boyfriend and how she is a shoo-in to be named Miss Ghana while brazenly putting down the rest of her crew, which consists of the tall, bright Ama (originally Níkẹ Kadri, now Latoya Edwards), the innocent, overweight Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), and the twinlike duo of Gifty (Paige Gilbert) and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole). The power dynamic immediately shifts when headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor) introduces a new student, Ericka Boafo (previously Nabiyah Be, now Joanna A. Jones), a beautiful, talented, and bold young woman who quickly challenges Paulina’s authority. Of course, putting Paulina on the defensive is not something you want to do, unless you’re ready for the barrage that will follow. So when Miss Ghana 1966, Eloise Amponsah (originated by Zainab Jah, now Zenzi Williams), whom Francis knows all too well, arrives to select one of the girls to compete in the pageant, the gloves are off and sides are chosen in a no-holds-barred battle for supremacy. “Headmistress likes to make everyone feel like they have a fair chance,” Paulina declares, “but we all know I’m the best.”

School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play was inspired by the true story of Yayra Erica Nego, the 2009 Miss Minnesota who went on to be named Miss Ghana 2011, a controversial decision for several reasons, including her fair skin, as well as by Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes. In the seventy-five-minute play, Bioh, a first-generation Ghanaian American who went to boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, explores such issues as body image and colorism, beauty and friendship, and race and class in this microcosmic Lord of the Flies scenario. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design is simple but effective, a few tables in the school cafeteria, while Dede M. Ayite’s costumes change from the standard green-and-white school uniform to fancy dresses for the competition, giving each character a moment to shine. Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent, Familiar) keeps it all in check, never letting things get out of hand or become too clichéd. School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play is no mere African American version of Mean Girls; instead, it is as smart and entertaining, as sweet and honest, its characters as obnoxious and horrible and lovable and vulnerable, as teen girls themselves. The encore engagement will feature a series of special postshow events, including audience conversations on November 14 and 18 and a talkback on November 19.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, and Margo Seibert star in The Thanksgiving Play at Playwrights Horizon (photo by Joan Marcus)

Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 2, $49-$89

I am not a fan of Thanksgiving. But I am a fan of Larissa FastHorse’s extremely funny and spot-on The Thanksgiving Play, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons. Not to sound holier than thou, but I’ve long given up stuffing my face with turkey and watching football while celebrating genocide on the fourth Thursday of November; my pescatarian wife and I try very hard to leave the country every Thanksgiving weekend just to avoid it all — and to not have to choose whose family we will be going to each year. But you don’t have to love or hate the holiday to get a huge kick out of the show. After years of being told that her plays were uncastable because theaters had no access to Native American actors, Sicangu Lakota playwright FastHorse came up with the rather simply titled The Thanksgiving Play, a wild and woolly farce that takes on important indigenous issues — in real life and on the stage — while featuring four characters played by white-presenting performers. The festivities begin with a preamble, as three members of the cast (Jennifer Bareilles, Margo Seibert, and Greg Keller), dressed in pilgrim costumes, and the fourth (Jeffrey Bean), in a giant, silly turkey outfit, stand in front of the curtain and sing “On the First Day of Thanksgiving” (sample verse: “On the third day of Thanksgiving the natives gave to me / three Native headdresses, two turkey gobblers, and a pumpkin in a pumpkin patch”). At the end of the song, the turkey explains, “Teacher’s note: This song can do more than teach counting. I divide my students into Indians and pilgrims so the Indians can practice sharing.”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Logan (Jennifer Bareilles) and Jaxton (Greg Keller) have a slight disagreement as they collaborate on school play about first Turkey Day (photo by Joan Marcus)

Ridiculously PC drama teacher Logan (Bareilles) is starting rehearsals for the annual school Thanksgiving play, which will star her boyfriend, Jaxton (Keller), a yoga practitioner and street performer; Caden (Bean), an elementary school history teacher and amateur actor and writer; and Alicia (Seibert), an ambitious, if not very bright, LA actress whose resume contains numerous Disney roles at theme parks and the like. Logan wants to make a devised piece about the first Thanksgiving, with all four of them participating in the show’s development. While Caden seeks to delve deep, deep, deep into the history of Thanksgiving and Alicia is looking forward to a lovely story with all the trimmings, Logan and Jaxton are absurdly careful about each word, each prop (the costumes and puppets are by Tilly Grimes), each plot point. “We start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided governmental policies and historical stereotypes about race, then turn all that into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids,” Jaxton explains. Meanwhile, Logan, who is worried that she will lose her job if the play goes wrong, calls Thanksgiving “the holiday of death.” Logan and Jaxton keep painting themselves into a corner as they reject characters, dialogue, costumes, and situations that they believe are racist, ethnocentric, stereotypical, and/or insulting to indigenous peoples, especially since their play is being written and performed without any input at all from Native Americans. And the further into the corner they recede, the more unlikely it is they will ever be able to accomplish anything.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Caden (Jeffrey Bean) has trouble keeping his eyes off Alicia (Margo Seibert) in sociopolitical farce by Larissa FastHorse (photo by Joan Marcus)

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Present Laughter) lets Bareilles, Bean, Seibert, and Keller run rampant on Wilson Chin’s schoolroom set, which includes posters of student productions of some rather adult shows. The farce gets out of hand at times, working better when it stays more grounded, since it is easy to believe that there are people like this who are so politically correct that they trap themselves in inaction and an innate inability to say anything, unaware of how to actually be an ally. One of the main reasons why The Thanksgiving Play, which runs until the day after the holiday [ed. note: it has now been extended through December 2], works so well, despite the occasional bumpiness, is because we recognize parts of ourselves in the four characters; of course, off-Broadway audiences tend to be significantly liberal — and often privileged — terrified of uttering or doing the wrong thing when it comes to people of color yet rather clueless about their own giant blind spots. Thus, there are moments in the show when you are likely to hesitate before laughing, wondering whether you are being insensitive by enjoying yourself too much.

FastHorse, a former television writer and ballet dancer, has dedicated her playwrighting career to establishing an authentic indigenous voice in American theater, as seen in such previous shows as Cherokee Family Reunion, Urban Rez, and What Would Crazy Horse Do? But she has met significant resistance; even her casting note for The Thanksgiving Play is controversial: “[People of color] who can pass as white should be considered for all characters.” She is attempting to level the playing field by increasing diversity and pushing an own-voices sensibility. The Thanksgiving Play, in which all participants, cast and crew, are new to Playwrights Horizons, is a big step in that direction. Be sure to get to the theater early so you can check out the exhibition on the third floor, a collection of works curated by Emily Johnson, who is of Yup’ik descent, from Johnson and Maggie Thompson’s “Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars” quilts and Shan Goshorn’s “The Value of Integrity” container to Maria Hupfield’s “Solidarity Acknowledgment Banner” and “Plays to Be: all the plays by Indigenous playwrights not yet produced and/or not yet written,” such as A Rez’n in the Sun, Lasting of the Mohegans, Six Degrees of Blood Quantum, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Colony? Even the bathrooms are involved, displaying such quotes as this one from Winona LaDuke in 2017: “It is possible to have an entire worldview that does not relate to empire.” Happy Turkey Day, everyone!


(photo by Joan Marcus)

Uncle Vanya is presented in new streamlined adaptation at Hunter’s Kaye Theater (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Kaye Theater, Hunter College
East 68th St. between Lexington & Park Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 18, $37 ($15 for students)

Tony- and Obie-winning playwright Richard Nelson gives Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya the Apple and Gabriel family treatment in the inaugural production from Gregory Mosher’s Hunter Theater Project, which has been extended several times at the Kaye Theater at Hunter College, now running through November 18. In such plays as That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad about the Apples and Hungry and Women of a Certain Age about the Gabriels, writer-director Nelson tells family stories often centered around important events, taking place in the kitchen as everyone comes together to eat. This new adaptation of Chekhov’s 1898 play, translated by Nelson with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is set in the kitchen of the Serebryakóv country estate. As the audience enters the small theater, where they sit on all four sides, chairs and tables are piled at the center of Jason Ardizzone-West’s intimate set. The characters enter and, before speaking, arrange the room; it’s almost as if we’re sitting with them as food is served and the plot unfolds. Ványa (Jay O. Sanders), who manages the estate, is preparing for the visit of elderly professor Alexánder Serebryakóv (Jon DeVries) and his much younger wife, Eléna (Celeste Arias). A soft-spoken man, Ványa has feelings for Eléna, as does Mikhaíl Ástrov (Jesse Pennington), a local doctor. Sónya Alexándrovna (Yvonne Woods), the professor’s daughter by a previous marriage, assists Ványa; she is interested in the doctor, who is taken with Eléna. The household is run by Sónya’s former nanny, Marína (Kate Kearney-Patch), who is watched over by Sónya’s grandmother, Márya (Alice Cannon), Ványa’s mother. They calmly discuss life and beauty, love and happiness as well as finances, which are not in good shape. And then it all explodes.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Mikhaíl Ástrov (Jesse Pennington) and Ványa (Jay O. Sanders) share a passion in Chekhov classic (photo by Joan Marcus)

Shakespeare in the Park regular Sanders (The Sinner, Unexplored Interior), one of New York’s finest character actors and who played Richard Apple and George Gabriel in Nelson’s family plays, is a hulking, heartfelt, forthright, and decidedly American Vanya in this tender production; a bear of a man, he gently waits for his moment to erupt in a classic role previously played by such British royalty as Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Nicol Williamson, Tom Courtenay, Derek Jacobi, and Anthony Hopkins. And when he does finally let it out, his fury is something we can all identify with, the rage and anger we keep buried inside, desperate to release. Woods (Goodnight Children Everywhere, Franny’s Way) portrays Sónya with a haunting sadness, while Arias, who played Masha in Jaclyn Backhaus’s The Three Seagulls, or MASHAMASHAMASHA!, is a sweet-natured Eléna, who is not looking to stir up gossip or hurt anyone. The translation is direct and straightforward, streamlined to 110 minutes without intermission. Time and place are not essential here; Nelson instead focuses on the characters and the relationships, keeping it all right on point. With Uncle Vanya, the egalitarian Hunter Theater Project has gotten off to quite a start: There are no membership programs or VIP access; all tickets are $15 for students and $37 for everyone else. And don’t be misled by the affiliation with the college; the project is a fully professional venture, with students working the front of the house and ushering.