The signature samovar is still in place in Soho Rep’s new modern-dress production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a new production of a play that first premiered in Russia in 1899 but which has been newly adapted by off-Broadway favorite Annie Baker from a literal translation by Margarita Shalina.
Though Baker has remained faithful to the text and avoided resetting the play or altering its references, director Sam Gold has placed the production in the present, with characters in modern costumes (designed, badly, by Baker herself) with mostly off-putting results.
The configuration of the theatre’s rectangular playing space sets up some of the production’s major eccentricities from the get-go. Above is a peaked roof; on all sides are banks of seating. In place of chairs are individual spots delineated only by pillows. For some unknowable reason, the Russian-language title of the play, also printed on the program sheet, is in lights on one end of the space. All along the theatre’s floors, seating, and walls is gray carpet, with various seventies-style pieces of furniture set about.
Despite being a fairly comfortable way to view a play (one can recline to the point where sleeping seems a viable possibility if one were so inclined), these no-frills frills seem like a way of unnecessarily dressing down a play that, though it can be viewed through a casual lens as is being done here, is punctuated by theatrical trappings – especially soliloquies – that should be observed rather than slouchified (my word), as they seem to have been here.
With a cast of off-Broadway favorites, including Reed Birney, Maria Dizzia, Peter Friedman, and Michael Shannon – as well as TV’s Georgia Engel – the potential here for a knockout Vanya is tantalizingly high. Despite Baker’s valiant achievements in adapting the play, however, there’s something entirely lacking here, mostly thanks to Sam Gold’s apathetic, lackadaisical direction, which leaves the actors’ mood-dials turned dangerously near emotionlessness from the play’s first moments all the way through to its last.
Uncle Vanya follows the travails of a group of Russians as the doctor, Astrov (Shannon), comes to visit the ailing Professor (Friedman), who despite summoning the doctor refuses to see him. Detailing the plot would be overkill. Most Vanya-goers will be familiar and those who aren’t should be able to catch on without any trouble. In brief, the professor and his wife, Yelena (Dizzia), have come to stay with Vanya (Birney), the professor’s first wife’s brother, who has been maintaining the household with the help of his niece Sonya, the professor’s daughter.
Various romantic intrigues ensue; Sonya loves Astrov, who loves Yelena, who loves him back but who also loves, in some ways, her husband. Vanya also loves Yelena, and so on and so forth. It’s a brilliant play, punctuated by brilliant speeches and keenly observed moments of quietude that Baker, as a master of silences herself, understands and interprets well.
The problems here are the direction and performances. For the most part, the actors here show great potential, but they’re all oddly unemotional, as if they’re all stuck in some never-ending indie slacker movie, emoting drily throughout. Reed Birney, typically a fabulous actor, seems rudderless, occasionally flubbing lines. There’s a falseness, too, in his interpretation that may spring from his uneasiness as a cog within this production, where his modern shirt-clad attempts at an easy-going attitude seem at odds with the soliloquizing that the script calls for (as is the case with others of the performances).
Michael Shannon, despite moments of animation, seems similarly stagnant throughout, as does Merritt Wever as Sonya, the worst offender of the bunch, who turns in the kind of performance in this Vanya that curdles an otherwise mediocre but watchable production.
For being described as having “intelligent, suspicious eyes,” Wever’s Sonya spends an inordinate amount of time staring and half-smiling, slackjaw – an odd, fatal choice for a woman who’s desperately in love with the doctor Astrov. Hers is a hard take on the part to swallow with memories of Mamie Gummer’s intelligent, impassioned take on the part in the Classic Stage Company’s fine 2009 production of Vanya still in memory.
The only reason one is even reminded in this production of just how prominent Sonya’s character is within the play (and it is much more prominent than productions’ billing give it credit for) is Wever’s frankly unwatchable performance, which is capped off by a draggy final monologue accompanied by questionable Russian-language singing from the production’s young men. In the end, she places the final knife in the back of this Vanya, which is – let’s face it – already down on its luck.
Despite Wever’s ineptitude, Peter Friedman and Maria Dizzia manage to make an impression. Dizzia uses the chilly tone of the production to alight a measure of cool heat within her take on Yelena, which has the vibe of Mary Louise Parker meets Diane Keaton as she commands the room in oversized men’s shirts, slaying the men’s hearts without much effort. Friedman, who is giving perhaps the best performance here, seems not to have been affected in the slightest by the production’s overall misdirection, delivering a crisp performance that’s got exactly the right amount of over-the-hill arrogance that’s needed to nail role of the professor.
In a piece in Interview magazine, director Gold summarizes his take on the piece: “We’re trying to pull everyone in the room and do as minimal a job of interpretation as possible, so the interpretation happens in the minds of the audience. People are wearing contemporary clothing, but the reason they’re wearing contemporary clothing is not because we’re setting it in contemporary America, it’s because to me, neutral is contemporary clothing. They are, from the comfort of the clothes they wear in real life, telling the story of Uncle Vanya and evoking in your imagination the world of the play.”
If Baker and Gold want their production to seem as if the audience has dropped in on some ordinary modern people performing Chekhov in a mostly nondescript living room-esque space, they seem to have missed the point of theatre – which is to heighten reality rather than mimick it – even for a naturalistic text like this one. If Chekhov had intended viewings of his play to mirror the experience of sitting around play-acting, he wouldn’t have built so much theatricality and emotion into his text.
It’s not that a production of Vanya must be costumed a certain way to be successful; had this play featured a host of light wash jeans (as it does) and the requisite levels of emotion, it might have succeeded where it ultimately fails. By attempting to achieve a “neutral” level stylistically, however, this Vanya at Soho Rep has achieved exactly that – neutrality in all things, all the way down to the actors’ emotional neutrality. How neutral.