For celebrated playwright Annie Baker’s new version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (through at least July 22), the small Soho Rep theater has been transformed into a living room—a living room in the most miserable house in Russia. Beige carpet covers everything: the floor, the walls, and the two-tiered risers, where audience members sit cross-legged, pillows at their backs. In this soft, warm and intimate production, directed by Sam Gold, the actors use their ordinary speaking voices, and get so close to the audience you can smell them (Michael Shannon is musky!), can really feel the feeling in Ivan Petrovich and his extended family’s grumblings, ruminations, and sufferings of unrequited love: he rails against his past, its misguided passions and its failures. Youth resents age; age resents aging.
Reed Birney makes an excellent Vanya, the caustic and depressed estate manager in love with his dead sister’s husband’s new wife, Yelena (Maria Dizzia), also loved by the local doctor, Astrov (Shannon: hunched, tightly coiled, and handsomely mustached), who’s loved by Yelena’s step-daughter, Sonya. In that part, Merritt Wever, best known for her role on Nurse Jackie, all but steals the show, so painfully sweet, loveable and enduring is she, holding it together while her elders fall apart, though nothing goes her way.
As in Three Sisters, Chekhov’s characters express worry here about how they’ll be remembered by the people of the future. Will we despise them for the way they spoiled the earth, cutting down old forests just to burn them? For the way the bourgeoisie put upon manual laborers? For the way they saw the world getting worse, and let it get even worse than that? The way they forgot the past, and thought not of the future, consumed only with the present? Yes, and no. The play is sad and bleak, but also hesitatingly optimistic. Chekhov’s most likable character, Sonya, is also the youngest—like Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan—suggesting that if the times or conditions never improve, well, at least the people might.
For more info on Soho Rep’s Uncle Vanya, click here.