By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
SoHo Rep's production of Chekhov's masterwork is a soul-satisfying Uncle Vanya.
Playwright Annie Baker, crown princess of downtown theatre whose recent Circle Mirror Transformation was a surprise hit of the 2009 season, is known to local audiences from Wilma's Body Awareness and Exile's The Aliens. And like these original plays, her Chekhov translation/adaptation is filled with long pauses, natural-sounding conversation, and irritating characters, but, unlike those, her Vanya is filled with a luminous depth and tragicomic intelligence.
Each time I teach Vanya or see a production, I find afterwards that I've made the same note to myself: Yelena, in the throes of unbearable ennui (not to mention insufferable self-dramatizing) remarks, "I'm a minor character in a play...," and I think/ feel that they are all minor characters in this play I'm watching, as we are all minor characters in this life we're living. That seems to be a governing notion in Chekhov—the marvel of those ensembles where everyone seems briefly remarkable, but mostly un-.
It is also the governing notion of Sam Gold's direction. The small audience sits on carpeted risers on all four sides of the floor—it seems only incidentally a stage—as though we are in the set, sharing the living room with these characters who are wearing clothes like ours, except when they appear in pajamas for late-night talks. This staging (set design by Andrew Lieberman) creates intimacy without the gimmicks; it arises naturally from the physical space and suits the play perfectly. There is some jokey business with theatricality ("There's a storm coming." Huge crash of thunder. "There it is").
Briefly, the plot, such as it is, concerns a Russian family, living meagerly on a vast rural estate. A narcissistic retired professor (Peter Friedman) who, with his officious hand-rubbing, and his corduroy jacket could have been plucked from any university faculty meeting, has returned to the estate with his young second wife Yelena (Maria Dizzia) where they upset the lives of those who live and work there: the Professor's brother-in-law, Vanya (Reed Birney) and the Professor's daughter Sonya (Merritt Wever whom you'll recognize from TV's Nurse Jackie), the old nursemaid (Georgina Engel) who calls everyone "sweetie pie," stands in contrast to Vanya's icy mother (Rebecca Schull).
Their family friend, the visionary, self-sacrificial doctor Astrov (Michael Shannon with his leather messenger bag), is the object of Sonya's hopeless adoration; he falls in love with Yelena, as does Vanya. They discover that uselessness is infectious, that boredom is contagious, that despair threatens every minute, and that hope is hardest thing there is.
The cast is thoroughly heartbreaking and funny and ridiculous; Wever's tender Sonya is especially moving as is Birney's extraordinary Vanya. Baker's fine translation make Astrov's passion for forests sound like Al Gore on his best day, and Astrov's observation right at the start of Act One speaks to a recognizable condition:
"Yeah, and for what it is, life is pretty boring and stupid. You're surrounded by creeps, you spend all day hanging out with creeps, a few years go by and little by little without even realizing it, you become a creep yourself. It's unavoidable."
As Vanya observes, "The past is gone, wasted on trivialities. The present is too ridiculous for words." But words are all they have.