As a neophyte to the world of theater, each new performance carries the weight of a revelation. Consequently, as of this moment I cannot even imagine a more gripping, important, and compelling performance than the new adaptation of Uncle Vanya at the ingenious Soho Rep. theater. Director Sam Gold and his crew converted the already intimate space into a fully carpeted living room theater. The audience sits on all sides of similarly carpeted levels with those in the front mere inches from the acting. The scenery, spare, full of antique retro furniture, looks like the theater raided an upscale Housing Works. (Of course, this being a Chekhov play there was the requisite samovar.) While many shows use the theater in the round to create a more intimate effect, here, “intimacy” underplays the experience. As my friend described, you feel part of the play, as if your family is standing right in front of you, fighting, yelling, calling each other names and at any moment you expect yourself to blurt out, “God, enough of this petty fighting!”
With an absurdly gifted and celebrated cast in such close proximity (literally inches away to the extent that I needed to exert real self control to not touch the actors), you forget to blink. To call one performance better than another would do injustice to the dynamic created, with the exception of Michael Shannon. Shannon stands on stage as a force worthy of reckoning. With his chiseled sharp features and sporting a slim mustache, Shannon looks the part of a run-down, beat-up Russian country doctor. Like so many of his roles, he brings an unparallelled intensity to Astrov, an idealist driven to resigned cynicism by the endless tedium and disappointments of life. In general though, certain actors radiated and encompassed specific experiences, moods and emotions.
Waffles (Matthew Maher) perfectly executes that beloved tool of playwrights, the fool who sees with a clear head while providing a much needed comic relief. The eponymous Vanya, played by the venerated Reed Birney, transforms the character from a beleaguered Russian into a pitch-perfect despairing modern man. He speaks with a snark and snarl we all know and recognize, and with an scathing acuity evinced by the anhedonic: jealous, as if slighted by the existence of happiness. Sonya, the ostensible moral center of the play, played by Merritt Wever, carries the baggage of a young woman burdened by the desires of youth but squashed by the exigencies of living. Still, amongst a cast of defeated and defeatist adults, Sonya’s enduring innocence and perhaps religious naivete offers a welcome contrast to the visible darkness of her Uncle Vanya. Finishing off the main cast, Maria Dizzia gives a very American performance of the entrancing Yelena. To quote Kanye West she plays the role like, “a spoiled little L.A. girl,” who redeems herself, slightly, by the end not in transcending her vanity but in the stirrings of realizing, at least, that other people exist.
It helps that this talented group works off a brilliant script. Adaptations, not just translations, especially of such a long-standing classic, present innumerable challenges. Annie Baker creates nothing short of a masterful adaptation that remains faithful to Chekhov’s feat of melding a wholly conversational tone with almost preternatural eloquence. Director Sam Gold toppled the near impossible task of balancing the heavy Russianness of the play while drawing out its universality. Gold achieves this not only through some more obvious choices (using contemporary fashion), but also in the general tone and pacing of the play: snappy, fast, sarcastic and understated, the last perhaps a characteristic somewhat foreign to the more melodramatic Russian greats. Baker takes this tack with her adaptation as well. For example, throughout the play Baker uses a leitmotif of boredom instead of words like dreary, lonely, or unfortunate.
However, in his attempt to make the play feel not only universal but contemporary to the American experience, Gold makes his one misstep in the play. He chooses to see the fraught relationship between the bombshell step-mom, Yelena, and the homely, humble Sonia as that of two best friends forever! When they make up, they do so in a manner that evokes countless scenes of girls in their pajamas cuddling next to each other discussing their crushes. These scenes not only feel stereotypical (I expected them to either start a pillow fight or do each others nails at some point), but at odds with everything else in this compelling, almost suffocating play.
This rendition suffocates you with the realizations we tend to stay away from. In our day to day living, in order to survive, we need to lie to ourselves. Tell ourselves that we will live uniquely singular lives, full of potential, talent, happiness and joy; that we can look at the world and smile at the progress of it all. Yet, something inside of us when provoked shouts out that stark but obvious realization of William James’ sick soul, “All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish. Can things whose end is always dust and disappointment be the real goods which our souls require? Back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness.” And yet, in that mysterious way of art, somehow, through dramatizing these struggles we provide an opportunity for transcendence despite the bleakness.
Baker, hewing close to the original stays with this bleak tone of Chekhov’s masterpiece. However her subtle changes, shifts, and word choice prove her as one of the most exciting playwrights today. For instance, when Vanya cries out about his emptiness at the end of the play, Astrov provides Vanya a pithy lecture on the general creepiness of man, of humanity. Previous translations use “foolish” or “eccentric” instead of “creepy,” but both in the context of the performance, and on paper, creepy fit the tone. Additionally, Baker, with the perspective more fitting, perhaps of our times then the Fin de Siecle of Chekhov’s time, divests much of the story of possible religious consolation. In her adaptation, fools or the naive invoke religion and the intelligentsia of the play laugh at it, scornfully.
In the finale of the play, an ambiguous ending regardless of the translation, Sonya attempts to console Uncle Vanya with a religious vision of the consolations of Heaven. Though Chekhov largely shunned neat morality or consolation, in other versions, it is not unfathomable that the consolations of afterlife can serve as a mitigating factor for Vanya. However, in Baker’s vision, under Gold’s direction, Vanya cries increase as Sonia waxes poetically about heaven. Her vision turns from a consolation into a sort of taunt to the true nature of life: nasty, brutish, and short.
Reading a play holds the same relationship to performance as does artificial fruit flavors to real fruit: you can get a sense of the flavor, but only in some sort of abstract approximation. For that, and for countless of other reasons, you need to see this play. It will hurt deeply but with a cathartic pain that will make your first breath out of the small studio taste like heaven. My heart held its breath for the duration of the performance, but that release at the end, as I walked out into that distinct NYC muggy sunshine felt like a rebirth. Welcome to the true magic of the theater.