nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 16, 2012
A motley assortment of New York stage favorites currently inhabit the living room of the Serebryakov estate in Annie Baker’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, now at Soho Rep under the direction of Sam Gold. The performers are not ones you’d expect to see in a Chekhov play; each one is a character actor defined by the quirky sensibility they bring to contemporary work. Yet this ensemble—Reed Birney, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Engel, Peter Friedman, Matthew Maher, Rebecca Schull, Michael Shannon, Paul Thureen, and Merritt Wever—marvelously imbues Baker’s contemporary, while thoroughly faithful, text with a great deal of thought and delicate care. Of anything I've ever seen, this is probably the closest exemplification of what the stage version of an indie movie would resemble.
Gold’s intensely claustrophobic production, Andrew Lieberman’s set, and Mark Barton’s striking lighting provide an opportunity for the audience to feel right at home, albeit as flies on the four walls of the compact A-frame house built within Walkerspace. Seated on carpeted risers (with pillows) around the rectangular playing area, we are no more than a few inches away from Engel’s grandmotherly Marina (called Nanny) as she pours tea from the samovar (the few set pieces and furniture look as though they could have been found at any Manhattan Salvation Army store). Dizzia and Wever’s Yelena and Sonya come to terms with their relationship while kneeling on the floor. And, when Birney’s devastatingly sad Vanya fires that gun at Friedman’s blustery Professor Serebryakov, our ears start to ring. The intimacy is palpable, and it fits right in with Baker’s text, which itself fits right in with Chekhov’s.
Baker and Chekhov write plays that are slices of life. Just as Uncle Vanya is subtitled “Scenes from a Country Life in Four Acts,” Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation could just as easily be subtitled “Six Weeks in a Creative Drama Class.” Chekhov’s characters, like Baker’s, are disillusioned yet they endure, struggling to find fulfillment and satisfaction that rarely arrive. For her Vanya, Baker has used a literal translation by Margarita Shalina, as well as the original Russian text. She makes the bold choice of keeping the play in that country, names and references intact, but with the dialogue translated into contemporary American English, delivered in standard American dialects by actors who are basically in street clothes (she served as costume designer, as well). The result is mixed; the text feels a bit stiff in certain spots, but in others, it truly does grasp the dissatisfaction that we all feel throughout our lives, from our disenchantment with our day-to-day activities to the heartbreak that comes with knowing that someone doesn’t love you back.
It’s fascinating to watch this particular group of actors dig into the play, and they emphasize the ensemble nature of the piece, rather than as a star vehicle for the Vanya or Yelena. Birney masterfully displays an existential despair that seems to radiate upwards and down from the pit of his stomach. Shannon brings to the intelligent but unsatisfied Dr. Astrov the feeling of someone who has never been quite comfortable in his own skin, providing a series of almost completely emotionless line-readings, yet still delivered with the intensity for which he has become known, though quieter this time. Dizzia makes for a terminally unhappy Yelena, while the sensational Wever’s wide-eyed innocence and simultaneous preternatural insight make Sonya’s realization that her plainness will leave her stuck even more devastating. Maher (as the impoverished landowner Waffles), Schull (as Vanya’s mother Maria), and Thureen (as the Russian folk song-singing workman Yefim) are also first-rate.
Admittedly, the seating got the better of me by the end and my patience started wearing a bit thin. But my restlessness was nothing compared to what was being presented on stage by some of my favorite actors, as people trapped forever in the abyss that is their lives.