Annie Baker’s Smart Uncle Vanya Adaptation Is Too Close for Comfort

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Amid a flurry of recent revivals of Uncle Vanya, Soho Rep’s adaptation stands ahead of the pack, and its adaptor, Annie Baker, deserves almost as much credit as does its creator, Anton Chekhov. Baker’s original works, including Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens, have peeked at the little things in life under a looking glass, magnifying the smallest gesture and the most quotidian routine to an epic scale. No observation is too small to yield some sort of fruit about how people navigate life around and into one another.

Which makes her well-suited to wrap her arms around the Chekhov classic, pairing up again with a similarly patient and keen director, Sam Gold, a force whose power comes from the stillness he brings to his shows. This pairing seems to have been magnetic, drawing a cast of theater titans including Reed Birney, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Engel, Peter Friedman, Michael Shannon and Merritt Wever. And fans are in luck, as Andrew Lieberman’s staging puts its audience right against the actors, in-the-round style, in a 1970s-era living room adorned in a blah beige carpeting the reflects that the largely humdrum lives of its characters, who swim laps in a world of dream and regret. However, I think Gold may have subverted his own mission. This Vanya is not the hyper-real, naturalistic piece it thinks it is; it is actually very much a dramatically finessed close-up production that (largely) succeeds in spite of its outward mission.

What makes Gold’s production so engaging – more so than the work typically is except for the most ardent of fans – is how much hidden emotion for these inwardly drawn characters is revealed, whether it be Professor Alexander’s (Friedman) vain dismissals or how his bored new wife Yelena’s (Dizzia) clandestine ennui erodes at her. Birney does wonders as Vanya comes to terms with a life that he feels has underserved him and Shannon’s Astrov strikes all the right chords self-absorbed detachment. The tense, tentative bond between Sonya and Yelena, who confide in each other like sisters but also view each other with the competitive edge of…well, sisters…is particularly revelatory and unique to the Baker-Gold adaptation. Baker has also managed to combine enough authentic Russian iconography with contemporary American address to place us squarely in a world of familiar dislocation. In Chekhov’s world, home is often where the hard is.

And yet. And yet. And yet. How I wish that I could write nothing but glowing praise for this revival, but there’s a drawback to Gold’s intimate staging. We’re ultimately too close to the action (and, it should be said, the seating is distractingly uncomfortable). Audience members can look around at any time and catch other audience member’s responses, but they can only witness a portion of the actor’s individual responses. Someone with a perfect view of Dizzia might miss an important reaction of Shannon’s; one can be wowed by Engel but miss a heartbreaking moment of a defeated Birney crying soft solitary tears. The safety of being in the eye of the storm comes with peril; sometimes one longs for the storm.

Uncle Vanya
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa; (866) 811-4111, www.sohorep.org. Through August 26.

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