Clockwise from upper left: Conrad Bain, Barnard Hughes, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, Lillian Gish and Cathleen Nesbitt are the principals In "Uncle Vanya."
By MEL GUSSOW
Inside the new Circle-in-the‑Square‑Joseph E. Levine Theater, the S.R.O. sign is up. This would be unusual on Broadway, at any time, but particularly at the sagging end of the season and especially because the play that is selling out every performance is Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."
But probably more people are coming to see the stars ‑Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Elizabeth Wilson, Lillian Gish, Cathleen Nesbitt, Barnard Hughes and Conrad Bain‑ than are coming to see the play.
Mike Nichols's production of "Uncle Vanya" is a rarity not only in terms of its box-office success (a success not measured in profits; the theater has only 650 seats and the participants are working at a financial sacrifice), but also in the fact of its existence.
Stars often talk about returning to the stage in a limited run of a classic, but they seldom do anything about it. It is Mr. Nichols's accomplishment that he brought together this constellation of actors who are largely strangers, some of them with reputations for volatility, and in a very short time knit them into something approximating a repertory ensemble. The one thing they have in common is their allegiance to Mr. Nichols.
Had to Blend Personalities
During, the five weeks of rehearsals, the director was concerned not only with extracting the essence of "Vanya," but also with blending diverse artistic temperaments. As director, Mr. Nichols is actors' collaborator, adviser, taskmaster, house critic and analyst. In addition, Mr. Nichols is the co‑author (with Albert Todd) of the translation of the play.
The afternoon before the first of three critics' previews, the director tried an unusual rehearsal experiment to relax his performers. It is traditional at this point to have line readings in which the actors, without props and scenery, and with a minimum expenditure of energy, talk the play.
It was Mr. Nichols's idea for the actors to do the line readings lying down. Eleven beds were moved from the dressing rooms into a rehearsal room. Each actor, including minor players, lay on his bed in the position he found most comfortable.
Lillian Gish and Cathleen Nesbitt placed cooling handkerchiefs over their faces. Elizabeth Wilson wrapped herself, in a blanket.
"The rest of us lay on top of the covers, some with long‑suffering looks," Mr. Williamson said.
At one point, when he was not speaking, Mr. Scott sat up on his bed and did a crossword puzzle. At another point, Conrad Bain, who does not have many lines, fell asleep.
Mr. Nichols conducted the reading from a recumbent position on a couch‑leftover scenery from 'Medea,' a previous Circle‑in‑the‑Square production. To Mr. Williamson, the couch looked as if it was from "an ornate Viennese psychiatrist's office," and the rehearsal scene like something out of a psychiatric ward.
The reading – repeated before each critic's preview ‑ astonished and amused the company. "In the end," Mr. Williamson said, "it was worth its weight in gold. It induced such a state of relaxation."
From the start the production was under pressure. Much hinged on it ‑individual reputations, the future of Circle-in‑the‑Square (its two earlier Broadway revivals had not been notably sucessfu1), and the prospect of other stars being wooed back to Broadway.
The participants say Mr. Nichols was the inspiration of the production. As Mr. Scott put it, "The key to it is Mike."
Last year, Theodore Mann, the artistic director of Circle-in‑the‑Square, called Mr. Nichols and asked him if there was a play he wanted to direct. As Mr. Nichols remembers "I said that I'd like to do “Uncle Vanya,” and I would see if George wanted to do it. That was the spine of it."
He explained his choice of play : "I've always wanted to do Chekhov, and ‘Vanya' is one of my two or three favorite plays." The others are “The Three Sisters," "King Lear" and "Waiting for Godot."
He wanted Mr. Scott, who has worked with him on three previous occasions, to play Dr. Astrov because of "his ability to play intelligence and a certain jadedness."
At first the actor hesitated. "I wasn't anxious to do Chekhov," Mr. Scott said. "And it's been five years since I was on stage." He re-read the play, thought it over and agreed.
"Then Nicol seemed to me exactly the one to do the Vanya I perceived," Mr. Nichols said. But Mr. Williamson had doubts because of his preconceptions of Vanya as a "gray, lethargic, brooding, whining specter." However, assuring himself of the "burning passions" and "tremendous irony" in Vanya, he also agreed.
Since the director's concept was that the play revolved around Elena, the young wife of the fusty old professor‑"a sexual catalyst turning a house upside down"- Mr. Nichols decided that the actress, like the character, should be “extremely sexy and beautiful.”
He asked Julie Christie, whose last stage appearance was 10 years ago in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of "The Comedy of Errors."
“I had no intention of doing it," she recalled. I would not have done it if it wasn't for Mike."
Part of Mr. Nichols's involvement with the play comes from his family.
"My father was a Russian doctor," he said. "He would tell stories about his bear-hunting in Siberia. He was Sol Hurok's doctor. When I would see Hurok he would say, how pleased he was that I was doing well -'but you are not as funny as your father.' It struck me that Astrov is an entertainer. He tells stories. So much of the Russian life is talking around the samovar."
As for Vanya, to some extent I identify him with myself," Mr. Nichols said, in part because of Vanya's "satirical impatience." In the director's view, Vanya "may be ineffectual, but he's very concerned with getting things centered around him. He does what self‑dramatizing neurotics do ‑ he gets attention through his problems. One of the tools he uses is humor. He must amuse people, and when that does not work, he starts yowling and stealing morphine to get more attention."
Mr. Nichols feels the core of the play is "the experience of being left out of life. Everyone feels that life is happening to the others, but not to themselves."
With such potentially explosive actors playing such emotional characters, observers envisioned fireworks during rehearsal. Mr. Williamson, asked about the rumored conflict between himself and Mr. Scott, mimicked interviewers : “How did you get along with George C. Scott?" "Wasn't he difficult and doesn't he drink a lot?” He then supplied the answers: "Don't we all drink now and again? And aren't we all difficult now again? I found George not more than utterly gentlemanly to work with."
Each actor had his own artistic problem to work out. For Mr. Williamson, it was to avoid what he considered standard reading of Vanya.
"He's not browbeaten," George said. "He's a disregarded character. I know the feeling I had when I was away my wife ‑ the painful anguish, the burnt‑up passion for something I adored and at that point, couldn't have. To recognize that your life has become ludicrous, and is too late to change anything."
"The scene of Vanya with the gun ‑ you don't know whether to laugh or to scream," he went on. "People rushing around like geese ‑ with wasted lives. I love the way George says, 'You're an old clown' to me ‑spiced with affection."
Scott Lacked Empathy
For Mr. Scott, one problem was a lack of empathy.
"There was an ugly period at the beginning of rehearsal when I didn't think much of the characters," he said. "They seemed so eccentric and odd." As he came to understand them, he said he realized they were "all terribly much in love and terribly without love."
The problems were perhaps the most personal for Miss Christie, who said she felt "real terror."
"Such an incredible company ‑ they're so brilliant." she said. "I felt a bit as if I was a one‑legged midget playing football against a team of giants."
The stage seemed totally alien to her movie experience. "If you fall flat on your face in a movie, you shoot the scene again," she noted. "The director arranges and shapes. The creases are ironed out.”
She said Mr. Nichols had been a constant help in understanding the character. He described Miss Christie as a "completely nonvain woman playing a vain woman." The actress said she saw the character as someone who "absolutely accepts her beauty," and added that she herself felt "very far away" from Elena and closer to the drab daughter Sonya and to Sonya's "loneliness, desperation, unhappiness ‑ anyone can identify with that."
Unfortunate First Night
Mr. Williamson said Mr. Nichols had "a tremendously power‑packed way of working." As soon as was possible, the cast was onstage with props ‑ and without scripts.
At the first critics preview, on a Friday night, everything went wrong," Mr. Nichols said. He watched from a rear row. Next to him, a man fell asleep early, woke up suddenly at the end of the first act and booed. The audience and the actors (to say nothing of the director) were startled.
The play received almost unanimously favorable reviews. Since then, the cast, by its own estimation, has had good nights and bad nights, often blaming a lack of audience receptivity for the bad nights. "They were swine tonight," Mr. Scott said after the second Friday night performance.
Last Show July 28
On July 28, "Uncle Vanya" will have its final performance, and unless it is put on film or television tape, it will not be repeated. The actors and director have commitments. What are the possibilities for similar projects?
Miss Christie is dubious about acting on stage again. "I can't see myself choosing anxiety as a way of living," she said. But others ‑ schedules permitting ‑ would like to do other plays.
"It takes a lot of great actors,” Mr. Nichols said. "It's not easy to get them together." It also takes a forceful director such as Mike Nichols. As Miss Christie put it: "I can't imagine anyone wanting to say no to Mike."