Annie Baker's take on Chekhov feels like family in the Goodman’s sturdy but unsurprising production.
Annie Baker and Anton Chekhov seem a well-suited match. Baker, the author of The Flick and The Aliens whose work is known for finding meaning in inaction and the unsaid, would appear a good match for the defining, near-deadly boredom endured by the characters in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya—the indignities and little nothings that add up to life. And Baker’s adaptation, from a literal translation by Margarita Shalina, stands up solidly among the dozen or more Vanya variations I’ve encountered over the years.
But in Goodman artistic director Robert Falls’s staging, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what Baker brings to the table. Baker’s Vanya debuted in a 2012 production at New York’s Soho Rep by Baker comrade Sam Gold that was a downtown sensation, with crowds lining up around the block to see Chekhov done in the round on a set that evoked your grandmother’s semi-finished basement and in modern dress so normcore it looked like a JCPenney catalog.
That production, and others that have followed it, may have highlighted some of Baker’s modern-language choices. Falls, on the other hand, plays it relatively traditional; apart from a working radio and the suggestion of a pretty stable electric power grid, there’s not much in what Falls, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and costumer Ana Kuzmanic show us that strays far from 1899 Russian countryside.
Which makes it that much harder to discern what to chalk up to Baker, Falls or to the members of the Goodman’s very fine cast. To repurpose a metaphor from Baker and Chekhov’s nature-loving Dr. Astrov (Marton Csokas), if a tree falls in the forest, does it matter who chopped it down?
So while we may wonder (and I do) why Falls decided to play Baker’s Vanya straight rather than mount any other translation, on its own terms it’s worthwhile if not revelatory. I worried early on that Kristen Bush’s Yelena, the young wife of middling academic Alexander (David Darlow) who draws the amorous attentions of both Astrov and his best friend Vanya (Tim Hopper), was beaming in from another play entirely. But that proves to be a smart actorly gambit by Bush, who gets to reveal her character’s true colors in due time.
But though Hopper’s character gets the title, his Vanya takes a clear third place in this production to Vanya’s niece, Sonya (Caroline Neff, reliably grounded and accessible), and her unrequited love for the compelling Astrov. Csokas makes Sonya’s crush make perfect sense: With his brooding brow, loping physicality, Brooklyn-caliber beard and Kuzmanic’s three-piece suits, his Astrov is country doctor by way of L’Uomo Vogue, coupled with an intensity that made me jot down Michael Shannon in my notebook well before I was reminded that Shannon played Astrov in the Soho Rep production. Neff, who has experience at Steppenwolf with both Baker (in last year’s The Flick) and in modern Chekhov (in Tracy Letts’s adaptation of The Three Sisters), is an ideal audience conduit. The Goodman’s production may not feel like a reinvention, but it’s worth checking off your list.
Goodman Theatre. By Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Annie Baker. Directed by Robert Falls. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.