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Make Work Austin Pendleton avoids Uncle Vanya’s ennui by staying busy—in part by directing “Uncle Vanya.”
Does the perennially busy actor/director/writer Austin Pendleton have some secret diet or special pill that keeps him going? This past season alone he directed the intense two-hander Fifty Words for MCC and the wistful drama Lillian Yuralia; starred in the title role of a musical based on the Chekhov short story The Black Monk; and now, in a production that opens this week at the Classic Stage Company, directed Chekhov’s despairing masterpiece Uncle Vanya. And we haven’t even mentioned his full teaching load at the New School.

“Theater” is the only drug he admits to in a short tea break before a run-through of Vanya, which stars Denis O’Hare (Take Me Out, Assassins) along with Peter Sarsgaard (The Seagull), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Homebody/Kabul) and Mamie Gummer (Mr. Marmalade). One wonders how the hard-working Pendleton is able to sympathize with a play full of bored characters lamenting their lack of ambition and activity.

“I feel sorry for them,” he says. “They’re all people who would like to have something to do. I suppose what my work schedule implies is a dread of being in that situation. So you feel a sort of compassion for them; they are living out your own personal nightmare.”

While Pendleton has played the central role of the depressed Uncle Vanya himself many times, he says he’s never actually reached the character’s point of raging ennui.

“I’ve had moments where I’ve had a great fear of having nothing to do,” Pendleton concedes. “Almost every role that you connect with is some form of nightmare that you’ve had.”

The tiny in-the-round space of CSC is ideal for Chekhov, Pendleton feels.

“I think the play requires that kind of intimacy,” Pendleton explains. “It shouldn’t feel like it’s being performed, you know?” But such naturalistic, non-stagy behavior in a space with so many different views of the action presents practical challenges: “If it’s a more presentational play, you can sort of open everything up,” Pendleton says, referring to the way actors can “cheat out” with their delivery in a less realistic play. “Here you can’t do that. It’s endlessly tricky; everyone’s going to feel cut off from the action at one moment or another, so you just have to say, in effect, ‘Just hang on for a couple minutes and you’ll be privy to something that nobody else is.’ ”

Having switched hats so freely for so long between writing plays (Uncle Bob, Orson’s Shadow), performing in them and directing, Pendleton has some interesting ideas about collaboration. Referring to an unnamed production he was once involved with as an actor, “I think things went quite radically wrong with the piece because of a lot of decisions that were made—including decisions by the playwright. I can think of times where, if I’d had my way as a playwright, it would have been very bad for the play.”

It’s all a matter of giving himself to the material, in whatever role he’s taken.

“I’ve acted in plays that I’ve recently directed, and you just have to turn yourself over,” Pendleton says. “The director will ask you to be in it, but then they’ll say, ‘Are you going to show up as a playwright or an actor?’ And you have to say, ‘As an actor.’ Otherwise you won’t be able to function.”

His own work as a playwright makes him appreciate Chekhov’s genius all the more.

“He wrote plays the way that no one ever has before and since,” Pendleton says. “Among other things, he was an innovator. If he wrote the plays today, they would still be new. And what you have to do, whether you’re an actor or a director or playwright, is pay close attention—to who you’re working with, to the material you’re working with. You must be very attentive to it and see what it’s up to. If you start to put on a hat that would take you away from that, you should take that hat right off.”

Though he says that as a director, he’s “ferocious about casting,” in fact the leads of CSC’s Vanya were presented to him as a package.

“When I was offered the job, the only one who was set for it was Denis,” Pendleton recalls. “Instantly, I knew that was a good idea. Then CSC came up with Peter and Maggie. I never would have thought of either of them. I mean, I didn’t resist them; I thought, ‘Well, that’ll be interesting.’ Now I think they’re just brilliant; I can’t imagine it with anybody else. I wanna think it was all my idea, but it wasn’t; I never would have thought of it.

“It makes you go back and think over other shows you directed: Who didn’t you think of who might have been great?”

Chances are, with a schedule like Pendleton’s, he’ll get several more chances to try out all these might-have-beens.

Click here for more information about Uncle Vanya.