Tuesday, May 26, 2015

New York Review: UNCLE VANYA

By Toby Zinman

New York Review: UNCLE VANYA


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.


SoHo Repertory Theatre, 46 Walker St., NY. Sold-out original run has been extended through July 22. Tickets $45. Information: www.sohorep.org or 212-352-3101.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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