×

Uncle Vanya

After 35 years of anchoring the downtown theater scene, Soho Rep is still living up to its mandate of producing bold work by brave pioneers.

With:
Vanya - Reed Birney
Yelena - Maria Dizzia
Marina - Georgia Engel
The Professor - Peter Friedman
Waffles - Matthew Maher
Maria - Rebecca Schull
Astrov - Michael Shannon
Yefim - Paul Thureen
Sonya - Merritt Wever

After 35 years of anchoring the downtown theater scene, Soho Rep is still living up to its mandate of producing bold work by brave pioneers. Annie Baker’s colloquial version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” — intimately staged in the round, with the actors performing at voyeuristic eye level with the audience — is more than a modern-dress treatment of a classic work. It’s a fresh rethinking of the material from the perspective of a modern mind. Under Sam Gold’s clear-as-a-bell helming, a remarkable ensemble revisits Chekhov’s familiar characters and breathes new life into their never-ending but forever doomed pursuit of happiness.

Aside from the traditional samovar that the old family nanny (played with a hint of sass by Georgia Engel) is constantly fussing over, there’s nothing noticeably Russian about the characters or the world they inhabit. The wooden A-frame into which the theater has been transformed for this unconventional production could be a Vermont ski lodge. The mismatched collection of beat-up furniture looks like curbstone rescues from Brooklyn Heights. And the lived-in costumes could have come out of the thesps’ own laundry bags.

The audience is drawn into the claustrophobic universe of the drama by a tight seating plan that has everyone sitting (or squatting or jackknifed) on two tiers of carpeted risers surrounding the stage — close enough to the actors to catch every expression. Viewed at eye level, their moody displays of ennui, longing, misery and despair are too close for comfort and has the unnerving effect of dragging us to hell with them.

The key question posed here is the same as it is in any conventional production: Who is the most miserable person in the room? But Baker’s ultra-colloquial language, Gold’s super-realistic direction and the extreme naturalness of the acting effectively eliminate the protective sense of distance that a contemporary audience might normally feel about foreign characters in a historical play.

Reed Birney’s sensitive portrayal of Uncle Vanya makes his despair over his misplaced ideals and shattered dreams deeply moving. But when he gets up in the middle of the night, slouching around in his shabby plaid bathrobe and muttering to himself, his anguish suddenly becomes palpable and leaves him almost unbearably vulnerable.

Michael Shannon seems to reach into Astrov’s tormented soul when he stands absolutely still and, in an idiom as natural as any heard on a New York street corner, wearily recounts the reasons for his despair.

Maria Dizzia’s daring physical approach to Yelena, the world-weary heartbreaker whose mere presence upsets the equilibrium of the entire household, is rooted in the same contemporary sensibility.

The other performances are just as meticulously constructed from the personal responses of thesps to the characters they completely and intimately inhabit. The amazing thing is, there is nothing the least bit anachronistic about their casual gestures, contemporary voices and informal line readings. Rather, it’s as if Baker, Gold and a company of actors who have worked together enough to read each other’s minds have found a way to reintroduce us to characters we thought we knew but had never seen in the mirror until now.

Uncle Vanya

Soho Rep; 75 seats; $45 top

Production: A Soho Rep presentation, in association with John Adrian Selzer, of a play in two acts by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Annie Baker, from a literal translation by Margarita Shalina. Directed by Sam Gold.

Creative: Set, Andrew Lieberman; costumes, Annie Baker; lighting, Mark Barton; sound, Matt Tierney; props, Kate Foster; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Christina Lowe. Opened June 17, 2012. Reviewed June 16. Running time: TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Vanya - Reed Birney
Yelena - Maria Dizzia
Marina - Georgia Engel
The Professor - Peter Friedman
Waffles - Matthew Maher
Maria - Rebecca Schull
Astrov - Michael Shannon
Yefim - Paul Thureen
Sonya - Merritt Wever

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content