Does Steve Carell's Dramatic Track Record Justify His Broadway Debut?
Steve Carell is set to make his Broadway debut this spring as the title character in Uncle Vanya, which will be performed at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in the iconic Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Through his first foray into serious stage acting, Carell is gearing up for his next Dan in Real Life-style dramatic turn.
There is an immortal principle at play in the intersection of comedy and drama that most performers who get categorized in either genre eventually follow – every comedian wants to do drama, and every dramatic actor mistakenly thinks that they’re funny. But for every Robin Williams who pulls off a Good Will Hunting, there’s a Dane Cook who does a cringey child abduction movie – and Brad Pitt’s surprisingly solid comedy performance in Burn After Reading was as good as Leonardo DiCaprio’s lame attempt at self-effacement in Don’t Look Up was uncomfortable. Very few actors can excel equally in both sides of storytelling, but, for my money, comedians have a higher probability of getting the best of both worlds.
Leading a cast that contains the likes of Alfred Molina and his Vice co-star Alison Pill, Carell seems poised to position himself as the next great double threat as he tackles one of Anton Chekhov’s many masterworks. The Emmy and Oscar nominee may even be angling for Tony nod with the high-profile production, which would put Carell just one Grammy loss away from an it’s-an-honor-just-to-be-nominated EGOT.
Carell’s career in serious roles would be impressive even if it didn’t follow an all-time great run in TV and movie comedy – starting with a well-received role in the 2006 indie film darling Little Miss Sunshine, Carell spent the last two decades finding spots in the casts of critically acclaimed movies that featured ample opportunities to show emotional range. He's appeared in many of Adam McKay's more serious and less Anchorman-y films, including Vice and The Big Short. Carell also earned his lone Oscar nomination for his performance as real-life millionaire murderer John Eleuthère du Pont in the 2014 true crime drama film Foxcatcher.
Nevertheless, can anyone say that they’ve ever seen Carell really disappear into a role to the point where it didn’t sort of feel like you’re watching Michael Scott in his “Threat Level Midnight” follow-up film? Even in Foxcatcher, the infamous fake schnozz that the film’s prosthetic department bolted to Carell’s face took top billing in the conversation about his transformation. Carell's dramatic characters come across as different flavorings of the same Carell, and, though plenty of actors make careers out of essentially playing themselves in every movie – looking at Jeff Goldblum’s chiseled chest – that kind of performance is usually only successful in screen acting. No one’s paying $500 for floor seats to see Vince Vaughn play Richard III.
In Uncle Vanya, Carell will play the embittered manager of an estate run by his late sister’s widower, who returns home with a young wife at the start of the story. Vanya falls in love with his host’s new bride as he mourns his past potential and what he feels to be a life squandered over servitude to a greater man. Considered one of the most iconic and culturally significant leading roles in the history of Russian theater, Carell’s new character will be his biggest dramatic challenge yet, and, with no Adam McKay behind the camera or an outrageously ambitious makeup artist on duty, his success or failure in the role will be utterly and entirely his own.
Critically, however, the works of Chekhov have an underlying quality that isn’t immediately obvious to those absorbing the stories outside of their native Russia – the legendary playwright is a comedy writer above all else. In many ways, Chekhov’s sense of humor was an early progenitor of the kind of “cringe” comedy Carell would later make a career from on The Office, as stark realism, subtle characterization and the awkward honesty of everyday conversation create immensely relatable and quietly comic situations wherein only the most skilled actors thrive. Though Uncle Vanya could hardly be considered a laugh-out-loud affair, its staging requires an undercurrent of comedy to survive translation.
For those reasons, Carell could very well be the perfect choice to play Vanya. Or, without an editing room, an all-time great film director and military-grade makeup technology, his stage debut will go about as well as the time he made that sequel to a Jim Carrey movie sans Jim Carrey.