WEIRDLAND: Maggie and Peter in Chekov's "Uncle Vanya"

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Maggie and Peter in Chekov's "Uncle Vanya"

"Over lunch at a trattoria near their Park Slope home, Ms. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Sarsgaard come across like a shinier version of That Brooklyn Couple who gave up the hubbub of Manhattan to raise their child in a quieter, tree-lined borough. They paw affectionately at each other’s collars and complete each other’s sentences; juggle their work schedules to accommodate their 2-year-old daughter, Ramona; and grumble about carrying strollers down subway staircases.

On closer inspection, though, that veneer of mundanity starts to unravel: the couple, who have been together since 2001, are not married, live in their own brownstone, refer to each other as lover (at least Mr. Sarsgaard uses the term) and can often arrange their work schedules so that one of them is free to attend their child. Mr. Sarsgaard and Ms. Gyllenhaal said they would work together more often if there were more low-risk opportunities like this, at a small Off Broadway theater with an accommodating director.

“It is only about the experience of doing it, and with your lover; why would we engage in anything any other way than that?” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “Why would we join forces commercially? It would be ——”

“Kind of disgusting” Ms. Gyllenhaal said, finishing his thought.

Their individual résumés explain why the prospect of their acting together is so intriguing. Mr. Sarsgaard, 37, is coming off a widely praised Broadway revival of Chekhov’s “Seagull”, in which he played Trigorin with Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina, to add to a repertory of reserved yet sympathetic characters in movies like “Shattered Glass”, “Kinsey” and “Garden State.” Ms. Gyllenhaal, 31, who was last seen on screen in the summer blockbuster “The Dark Knight” (playing a role she inherited from Ms. Holmes), has her own tradition of playing astonishingly raw and unglamorous characters, in films like “Sherrybaby” and “Secretary” and plays like Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul.”
And it was she who suggested Mr. Sarsgaard for the role of Astrov, a suggestion that took the play’s creative team by surprise. As Mr. Pendleton recalled, “I said, ‘But he’s in “The Seagull.” ’ I didn’t even know Maggie and Peter were together.”It may be satisfying for the audience to see Ms. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Sarsgaard finally confront each other, but the actors said it was a scene they were still struggling with.

“We have never, ever done this one scene without one of us dropping a line,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said.

“Usually just one of us, though,” Mr. Sarsgaard said, pointing to Ms. Gyllenhaal, who laughed.

“In some ways,” she said, “that scene is about my completely relinquishing control — giving into him completely. And so I do. And sometimes I can’t remember my lines.”Whether or not the couple perfect that scene by opening night, Mr. Pendleton said, they had already brought a fresh take to “Uncle Vanya” with their “infinitely exploratory” acting process, which he explained: “You don’t make decisions until you absolutely have to. You just try everything, well into previews. Because of that I think they’ve inspired the whole group.”

It remains to be seen if performing “Uncle Vanya” will make them more comfortable with their grade of celebrity status. Ms. Gyllenhaal said she could foresee a time when their desires to protect Ramona’s privacy and lead a more domestic existence would compel them to leave New York. “Both of us crave a quieter lifestyle lately,” she said. “We would probably like to move somewhere greener.”

Then again, Mr. Sarsgaard said, “Maggie thought we were moving to the country when we moved here”, to Park Slope.

Should “Uncle Vanya” merely prove a once-in-a-lifetime, let’s-never-do-that-again occurrence, the two said it had nonetheless been constructive for their relationship.

“I think you call me a genius in the play, right?” Mr. Sarsgaard asked Ms. Gyllenhaal.

“A couple times”, she gamely replied.

“Now that she’s got that straight in her head, we’re cementing it in there,” Mr. Sarsgaard said. “I feel like that will give me another five years of clear sailing.”

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