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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
UNCLE VANYA
at Soho Rep

UNFULFILLED LIVES
By MATT WINDMAN


Remember those high school basement parties where you and some friends would casually lie around the carpet floor and drink your parents’ alcoholic beverages? Soho Rep’s unusually intimate production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is rather like being invited to such a party, but one that is populated by very unhappy adults.

Uncle Vanya observes the trials and tribulations of a mostly miserable Russian household that includes the middle-aged Vanya, who has come to the realization that he has wasted his entire life in service of an absent-minded professor; Yelena, the professor’s young and unhappy wife; Sonya, the professor’s sweet but unmarried and less-than-attractive daughter; and Astrov, a drunken doctor whose real passion lies in forestry.

As with all of Chekhov’s best-known tragicomedies, there isn’t much of a plot. Its real value lies as a brilliant character study of individuals coping with unresolved ambitions and boredom. Vanya, for instance, rails that he had the potential to become a famous author or could have married Yelena himself.

Playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold rose to prominence two years ago with the hit Off-Broadway play Circle Mirror Transformation. Their Uncle Vanya is set around a small living room setting in which the audience surrounds the cast and sits on carpeted benches.

While Baker has not updated any references in the play, she has given it a contemporary American flavor that is easy to follow. The actors also wear everyday clothing.

This makes for an intimate experience that allows the actors to give seemingly effortless and casual performances in which they do not have to project their voices for a large venue. But the lack of performance space, and the rather pedestrian setting, makes much of the production feel rather like a reading that is devoid of physical action or theatricality.   

But the static staging aside, the cast is absolutely wonderful. Reed Birney, who has given many remarkable performances in recent seasons, is an especially self-loathing and sarcastic Vanya. Michael Shannon, sporting a mustache, brings his trademark intensity to Astrov. Maria Dizzia makes for a less proper, more aggressive Yelena. Mary Tyler Moore Show veteran Georgia Engel is terrific in the small role of the aging nurse Marina. Peter Friedman easily inhabits the role of the bookish, socially awkward Professor Serebryakov. 

 


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