‘Uncle Vanya’ Up Close at Guild Hall

An innovative and daring production
In “Uncle Vanya” at Guild Hall, Stephen Hamilton plays Astrov, Alicia St. Louis is Sonya, and Rachel Feldman is Yelena. Fred Melamed plays the title role of Vanya. Durell Godfrey

   Fred Melamed was 22 in 1978, the first time he played the title role in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which he is now reprising in an innovative and daring production directed by Stephen Hamilton at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall for a limited run next month.
    Mr. Melamed had graduated from Hampshire College the previous summer, where, as a freshman, he’d joined the music department.
    “I was trying to get girls,” he said Friday during a break from rehearsal. He quickly realized that at Hampshire, while there were a lot of male competitors for women in the music department, the competition was much less fierce across the hall in the theater department.
    After this whimsical beginning, four years later he was accepted into Yale Drama School.
    “Right away when you got there, your first year, they’d give you a big role like this or King Lear, something you couldn’t possibly handle. Everybody was a big fish in whatever college they came from, they were Mr. Theater wherever they came from.” By giving their rookie students classic, epic roles right out of the gate, Yale made sure that “the big fish” learned just how deep the dramatic ocean is.
    Mr. Melamed remembers about playing the part: “I could see what was beautiful about it, but a lot of it was distant to me.”
    “Now it’s quite different,” said Mr. Malamed, who will turn 56 during the play’s run at Guild Hall. “Now it’s a great challenge, but I take it with relish because it is so beautiful. It is so filled with real feeling. He’s a character very familiar to me, being a Jew and Eastern European, because he complains all the time. He complains about everything.”
    After Yale, Mr. Melamed worked at the Guthrie Theater, then joined the fledgling Shakespeare and Company. He became a regular in Woody Allen films, among others, but he found his true niche, or so it seemed at the time, in the idiosyncratic world of the voice-over.
    Mr. Melamed has a deep, layered, rich voice, one that has the sound of comfort, and authority, and it quickly became the voice for major American corporations in the world of television.
    It was a lucrative world for Mr. Melamed and his wife, Leslee, a graphic artist. They had an apartment in the city and a weekend house in Montauk.
    Then, two events occurred that altered the trajectory of their lives, and Mr. Melamed’s career.
    Nine years ago, Ms. Melamed gave birth to twin boys, Alec and Lee. When the boys were 6 months old, they were diagnosed as being autistic.
    The parents began their search for a school for the boys, which led them to the Child Development Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, which specializes in nurturing gifted and challenged children. The Melameds decided to make their Montauk house their year-round home.
    At the same time, Mr. Melamed’s bread and butter, the commercial voice-over world, changed. What had been in vogue for so long, the “voice of authority,” was no longer in demand. Instead, advertisers wanted “real”­­ voices, the guy or gal in the street. It was a sound alien to Mr. Melamed.
    Out of work, he took stock of his situation. It was early 2009. The family had enough money, he realized, to last one year before they would be forced to make radical decisions. Mr. Melamed decided to use that year to abandon the commercial world and return to acting.
    Then, one day, he received a call from Joel Coen, who, with his brother Ethan, had just written the movie “A Serious Man.” They wanted him to play the villain. He accepted the part, and the film went on to be nominated an Oscar for best picture. He has been working nonstop ever since.
    He is a regular on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasim,” as well as CBS’s “The Good Wife.” He has several films due for release in the coming months, including “The Dictator,” with Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley, “Fred,” with Elliot Gould, and “In a World . . .” directed by Lake Bell, in which he plays, ironically, a voice-over actor.
    But over the years, “Uncle Vanya” — both the play and the character — has remained with him.
    Stephen Hamilton, director, drama coach, and co-founder of the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, shared the same obsession. The two men met when Mr. Melamed did a reading at Guild Hall with Alec Baldwin.
    “I’d been working on ‘Uncle Vanya’ for six, eight months. When I met Fred, I thought, this is a great opportunity,” he said on Sunday over the phone.
    Mr. Hamilton’s vision of the play is inspired in part by the Louis Malle film, “Vanya on 42nd Street,” made after three years of rehearsal with the producer Andre Gregory.
    Mr. Hamilton recalled seeing Mr. Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who was in the film, interviewed on “The Charlie Rose Show.” Mr. Shawn spoke of being in the back of the house of a Broadway theater while onstage two actors did a sexy, intimate scene in loud stage voices.
    “Wallace said, ‘This is crap. This is bullshit. This is not theater.’ ”
    It is Mr. Hamilton’s vision to bring the audience onto the stage, to share the intimacies of the Chekhovian classic. There will be only 55 audience members per show, all seated on the stage, with the actors.
    “It’s a very small audience, and they’re so close,” Mr. Melamed said. “It’s like film acting, they’re right on top of us. Any falseness is immediately detectable so the whole thing has to be quite internal and quite real.”
    Mr. Hamilton is also acting in the play, playing Dr. Astrov. Mr. Hamilton acknowledges the challenge of acting and directing at the same time, a tradition that was commonplace in the theater world of the 19th century.
    During rehearsal on Friday, in a scene between Astrov, Sonya, played by Alicia St. Louis, and Yelena, played by Rachel Feldman, the quiet, truthful intensity of the actors made each moment seem like magic, to be embraced and savored, yet, at the same time, seductively conversational and inviting.
    At the end of a particularly delicate scene, Mr. Hamilton began to speak, then paused. “The truth about directing has come out,” he said, laughing. “The less I say, the better I am.”
    The actors were where they needed to be.
    Mr. Hamilton’s main challenge was assembling the cast. They have been working on the piece whenever their busy careers allow them to. After meeting Mr. Melamed, Mr. Hamilton felt that he’d found his Vanya, and asked him to do a reading with the cast.
    In Mr. Melamed’s mind, he was just sitting in, because he had Ms. Bell’s “In a World . . .” coming up. “But I really wanted to do the play,” he said.
    Then Ms. Bell’s production schedule was suddenly moved up, and the time slot needed for Mr. Melamed to do Vanya became available.
    Mr. Hamilton quickly assembled the rest of the cast, mostly using actors he’d already been working with on the production, some of whom were known to him from the past.
    Such an experimental production would not be possible without enthusiastic producers who accept the production’s shelf life. About the possible future of the production past Guild Hall, Mr. Hamilton said, “I see it more as a stand-alone production, having its life here.”
    Despite being written in 1897, the play is amazingly relevant. Astrov, for example, speaks of the deforestation of Russia with the same passion as a contemporary environmentalist trying to save the wetlands.
    Mr. Melamed said, “This is a play about people stuck together on a country estate who have deep love affairs with one another, and great hatreds for one another, and all those things are based on not the reality of who the other person is, but needs in the individuals that fuel these passions.”
    “And that’s why it is still more contemporary and modern than anything you’ll see on reality television or most movies, for that matter.”
    “Chekov was the first dramatist to put into practice the idea that the thing that motivates people in life is not the words but what is beneath the words,” Mr. Melamed said.
    “Astrov says in the play, ‘You know how you’re walking through the woods at night, you see a light far away from you, because you move towards the light, even a distant light, you don’t feel the pain of the brambles as they scratch your face, the light keeps you moving forward.’ Well, that’s the way these characters are. They know they are moving towards something.”
    Mr. Melamed reflected on the path that brought him to this production, on his wife and his two sons, who are now thriving in their caring environment.
    “It’s a rare thing to get a second act in life, a second act in your career. I feel grateful to have gotten this chance,” Mr. Melamed said.
    Tickets are $25 for the general public and $10 for students. Those interested can find them online at guildhall.org or theatermania.com, by calling 866-811-4111, or at the Guild Hall box office starting May 3.
    The limited engagement runs from May 3 through May 20. In addition to Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Melamed, Ms. Feldman, and Ms. St. Louis, the cast also includes Janet Sarno, Herb Foster, Delphi Harrington, Daniel Becker, and Dominick DeGaetano.