Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya—perhaps his harshest play—is a study in claustrophobia. Its enclosed spaces are literal: Bottled up in an isolated country house, its characters chafe against each other until tempers fray, repressed feelings spill free, and uncomfortable realizations loom unavoidably. But the confinement is also existential. It’s not just the dacha that hems them in: Their lives are the closest kind of captivity of all—time, too, is a merciless prison.
In the play, the arrival of a vain professor (Peter Friedman)—here, called just the Professor—and his sexy, bored wife, Yelena (Maria Dizzia), disrupts the operation of the Russian estate whose income has sustained him through a life of derivative pedantry. With its routines off-kilter, the country people—especially the professor’s daughter Sonya (Merritt Wever) and her uncle Vanya (Reed Birney), the estate’s hardworking managers—are left to fill the unfamiliar spare time with self-examination and amorous aspirations. Remorseful mnemonic voyages through wasted opportunities, and seething unreciprocated desires, soon put the household, and their psyches, on the boil.
Sam Gold’s devastatingly beautiful new Soho Rep production—Annie Baker adapted the original script—puts us in the house with them, breathing the same air thick with disappointment, fatigue, and fragile, desperate hope. Under steeply angled plywood rafters, in a room halfway between a barn and your grandma’s living room, we sit crosslegged and jammed together on carpeted steps that run around the theater on three sides. Like Chekhov’s fed-up people, we’re never more than a room’s length from anybody—or their problems. We’re as hemmed-in as they are. While they fret, fume, desire, jibe, and despair, we’re always over their shoulders and sometimes even inside their heads—in this intimate room, monologues become charged confessional episodes.
Chekhov’s self-scrutinizing characters are always watching themselves live life, both performers and ironic critics of their own dramas. Even while they feel the pangs of some desperate, private emotion, they’re also hunting up parallels from literature or theater, ruefully aware that no human thought or feeling is truly original. The heightened theatricality of Gold’s staging—we watch our fellow spectators watch, and see ourselves seeing—makes the characters seem even more painfully conscious of their own melodramatic urgencies.
More than most theater, this is time explicitly spent together. And, as we all know, in a Chekhov play spending time is a serious business—as characters lament their lost youth, rage against the narrowing limits of their lives, or yearn at utopian futures, we’re made acutely mindful of dwindling seconds, minutes, hours. We’re growing irrevocably older, and closer to our own hard life reckonings as we sit there. Performed in modern dress—the costumes are so apt it’s as if the characters themselves picked them—the production puts the 19th and 21st centuries into stereoscopic overlap. When characters fervently dream of a better future redeemed by their unrewarded toil, we’re forced to confront the bitter fact that it may not have arrived.
The close proximity allows the company to act with a gorgeous conversational naturalism, as subtly modulated as film acting, but more vibrant for being spoken directly to us, and each other, in time with the play’s mercurial shifts of mood. Since we’re all in the room together, the performers can throw lines away as they walk out, or holler from the wings. Gold stages eloquent flourishes in the margins—as servants drift in and out, we’re alert to the subtle workings of the estate, the apparatus that supports these listless lives. We forget about someone sitting quietly in the corner until they chime in once again.
Baker’s adaptation is utterly faithful to the play’s clear-eyed spirit, rendering its hard truths in plainspoken prose that sometimes approaches an almost Beckett-like starkness—while remaining truthful to Chekhov’s uncanny transcription of sputtering consciousness. She preserves enough strangeness—Russian songs, places, names—to remind us of the play’s origins, while unostentatiously making the language sound completely contemporary. She merges the offhand casualness and ironic detachment of downtown theater with the sudden emotional swerves, dives, and flights of Chekhov’s mobile temperaments. This pays off in many places, but I’ve never heard Doctor Astrov’s helpless lament for humanity’s ecocidal tendencies more clearly or more urgently. I think it’s the best version for American ears and tongues since Paul Schmidt’s.
This is ensemble acting of a caliber we don’t often see. Birney’s mordant, acid Vanya; Wever’s sweet, suffering, utterly unsentimental Sonya; Michael Shannon’s obsessive, exhausted, ironically self-loathing Astrov; Dizzia’s charming, arrogant Yelena—each renews a familiar character, while also precisely aligning them with 21st-century types. We all know people like this. (Friedman nails the persona so perfectly, his professor could have taken the train down from Columbia before the show.)
For Chekhov’s people, the only form of salvation from time’s remorseless advance is scrupulous attention to everyday tasks—keeping accounts, making sure others are fed and comforted, sustaining life in small ways. For this production, too, grace is in the details: Vanya vehemently chomping a pickle while excoriating his own failure with perverse glee; the almost Caravaggio-like modulation of light and shadow; how the stage is voided in the tumultuous third act to match the environmental blight mapped on Astrov’s charts.
Go see it. People are going to be talking about this one for years.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 20, 2012