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Anton Chekhov liked to use the Russian word for strange. It peppers many of his great works, a false cognate that sounds like “stran-nee” or, in noun form, “stran-no.” His English translators offer strange and its variants: odd, mysterious, creep, freak and so forth. Like Chekhov, playwright Annie Baker finds people deeply weird, and such sympathetic resonance makes her an ideal adapter of his plays. Baker’s new version of Uncle Vanya finds fresh pockets of rawness and disorientation in the classic, wrapped in a wholly absorbing, intimate setting by director Sam Gold and acted by a superb cast.
Baker and Gold previously collaborated on Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens, and they mesh beautifully with Chekhov’s world, rendered in modern dress and contemporary attitudes, but still hitting the universal notes the author so keenly sounded: boredom, groveling love, curdled idealism and endurance. Gold has reconfigured Soho Rep’s long, narrow space with wall-to-wall neutral-gray carpeting, cozily mismatched furniture and poky table lamps. Audience members loll on four sides of the playing area, leaning against pillows, sometimes inches from the actors. The volume level is low and the lighting is often dim, but the effect never lulls. Instead, you are sucked into the melancholy tale of middle-aged, embittered Vanya (Reed Birney); his plain, lovelorn niece, Sonya (Merritt Wever); and friends and relatives coping with heartbreak and ennui in the countryside. (The effect, in terms of atmospheric acuteness and immediacy, is like entering the world of Louis Malle’s magnificent Vanya on 42nd Street.)
A phenomenal cast deftly handles the play’s shifts from silliness to torment. Besides the aforementioned Birney (cheerfully miserable) and Wever (smiling pathetically through the pain), Michael Shannon carves out a pensive, haggard Astrov, and Maria Dizzia is a listless, drifting Yelena, her beauty souring on the vine. Gold’s minutely crafted production is filled with inspired touches, like Vanya and Astrov emerging from a door in the floor (perhaps a nod to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man) to the Slavic folk tunes rudely warbled by servants Paul Thureen and Matthew Maher. I’ve seen quite a few revivals of Vanya in recent years, in Russian and in English, but this felt like a great new play. Isn’t that wonderfully strange?—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote