Uncle Vanya Review: An Intimate Chekhov at Soho Rep
When Annie Baker, playwright of the exquisite “Circle Mirror Transformation” and her frequent collaborator, super-star director Sam Gold (“Seminar,” “Look Back in Anger”) decided to take on Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” — which they have done now in an inventive and uncomfortable production at Soho Rep that is a very hot ticket — it was to solve an intriguing problem: Why is it that the play about the loves, hates, frustrations and disappointments of an interconnected group of Russians in a 19th century country estate is so riveting to read but difficult to watch?
The English translations are stilted, they decided, very far from giving a sense of the colloquial Russian in which Chekhov wrote it, and the staging is often arch and distancing.
Give them credit: They have managed to make their “Uncle Vanya” distinctive, not easy to do for a play that is put on as often as this one — there have been ten productions on Broadway alone; a version starring Cate Blanchett will be at the Lincoln Center Festival next month.
Baker’s translation does seem more natural and accessible.To erase the distance, Gold and his set designer Andrew Lieberman turned the Soho Rep into the cramped living room of a rustic summer home, complete with an arched ceiling of unpainted plywood. The audience sits in the round around the carpeted room, on carpet-covered shallow bleachers that leave no place for your legs(tall people be warned.) The characters, dressed in everyday summer street clothes (the costume designer is Annie Baker herself) shuffle around casually, pouring themselves tea, or taking snacks sometimes inches from your nose. They wander in and out the way guests would at a summer home, sometimes mumble their lines in a partially obscured corner. At times, when it is supposed to be deep at night, the only lighting comes from a few table lamps.
All this intimacy and naturalism work best during the scenes with the stand-out members of the cast, especially Reed Birney, a veteran actor who was terrific in“Circle Mirror Transformation” and here nails it once again as Vanya. Vanya feels he has wasted 25 years of his life in service to the Professor (Peter Friedman), whose first wife, now deceased, was Vanya’s sister. Vanya thought the Professor a great man; now he thinks him a fraud, and resents his inexplicable attractiveness to beautiful women. His resentment and envy of the professor may help fuel his obsession with the Professor’s second wife, Yelena (Maria Dizzia, who was nominated for a Tony for her role as one of the “hysterical” patients in “In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play”). Birney manages the neat trick of conveying the bitterness and ennui of the middle-aged man while suggesting the passions from his youth that have not been snuffed out.
Other cast members are familiar faces from (strictly high-quality) TV: Georgia Engel, who played Georgette in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” here plays the long-time servant Marina, who spends her time when not knitting rushing around to try to please a collection of deeply dissatisfied intellectuals. Merritt Weaver, who plays Zoey the nurse in “Nurse Jackie” on Showtime, is here Sonya, the Professor’s daughter, who sees herself as plain, is robbed by her father of her inheritance, and is in unrequited love with the disillusioned, drunken doctor who visits regularly. That doctor, Astrov, is here played by Michael Shannon, best-known to a wider audience as the fanatically religious Agent Nelson Van Alden, but that downtown theatergoers know for such indelibly intense performances as that of the crazed man in BUG.
I have no doubt that Shannon is a serious actor, perhaps a great one. I also have no idea what to make of his Astrov, who is so numbed out that he often seems to be nearly asleep on his feet, coming alive only when he too declares his passion for Yelena. In most translations, Astrov complains that he has become “silly” like the people who surround him. Baker instead has him say he is surrounded by “creeps” and has become a “creep” himself. And Shannon surely seems creepy. In no way does he strike me as a plausible practicing physician, but that could be evidence of my lack of familiarity with 19th century Russian doctors.
One could call his performance internalized, like any committed Method actor, and it is beguiling to learn that Astrov was in fact played by the great Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, inventor of the Method, at the Moscow Art Theater premiere of “Uncle Vanya” in 1899. Did he too creep around the set?
One could extend my view of Shannon to the production as a whole. Sam Gold clearly knows what he is doing; his brilliance with an ensemble cast is already well-established. The concept of the production is fresh; Annie Baker’s adaptation is clear. But the actors are playing characters who sulk, whine, and shuffle around as if their life has lost meaning for nearly three hours, sometimes in near-darkness, alleviated only occasionally by some nice singing and guitar-playing. Chekhov’s much-vaunted comedy largely gets lost with this treatment, especially when audience members’ attention focuses increasingly not on the characters’ misery but on their own discomfort. It is hard to focus fully on the bleakness of wasted lives when trying to keep one’s own legs from falling asleep.
at Soho Rep
46 Walker Street
By Anton Chekhov, new version by Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold
Sets by Andrew Lieberman; costumes by Ms. Baker; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Matt Tierney; fight director, Thomas Schall;
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission.
Cast: Reed Birney (Vanya), Maria Dizzia (Yelena), Georgia Engel (Marina), Peter Friedman (the Professor), Matthew Maher (Waffles), Rebecca Schull (Maria), Michael Shannon (Astrov), Paul Thureen (Yefim) and Merritt Wever (Sonya).
Tickets: $0.99 – $50.00
“Uncle Vanya,” already extended once, is scheduled to run through July 22.
Update: Uncle Vanya has been extended through August 26.
For up-to-the-minute New York theater news, views and reviews, follow Jonathan Mandell on his Twitter feed at @NewYorkTheater
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