Jun 18, 2012
photo by Julieta Cervantes
I couldn't have been more on board for Soho Rep's indie-star-studded Uncle Vanya, and not just 'cause I got the chance to report on and contemplate it in advance. A little over a month ago, I'd sat through Target Margin's meta-take on the play—a kind of surface playing-at-the-text rather than in it—and was both fundamentally dissatisfied with the production and curiously interested in it; I didn't like it, by any stretch, but I was surprised how much it didn't bore me. The experience was a bit like skimming through the play while my mind was elsewhere; it wasn't involving on its own rather modest terms, but it was still Uncle Vanya, probably my favorite play (and one I know as well as I know any play).
So I went to Soho Rep eager to see what seemed on paper like an inspired idea: to have an extraordinary cast perform it in an intimate space without period frills, to just see and hear the play without distraction, not unlike the quietly intense version captured in Louis Malle's film of Andre Gregory's gorgeously idiosyncratic production, titled somewhat unfortunately Vanya on 42 Street.
This new Vanya is most decidedly not a meta-take, or a coolly distanced one, but its soporific effect on me made Target Margin's seem peppery by comparison. I could write for a while about a lot of the show's problems, but I think their root causes can be ascribed to two interrelated problems I would call phony naturalism and technical difficulties.
The first, phony naturalism, is a rookie mistake I almost can't believe adapter Annie Baker and director Sam Gold have made, since their work together has if anything been characterized by a laser-like specificity, a reinvigorated attention to detail that can make fly-on-the-wall naturalism feel urgent, even experimental, rather than just the people-on-a-couch default of lazy theatrical imagination. This Vanya, alas, is a shruggy, desultory affair that seems to have confused casual, offhanded, non-specific mumblecore sensitivity for realism. Indeed, it plays almost like a parody of the Annie Baker/Sam Gold aesthetic, and its shabby-hipster limbo makes a frustratingly imprecise match for Chekhov's world—which, with touching perversity, Baker's adaptation keeps faithfully referring to, right down "versts" and "barley kasha."
The show's technical difficulties are integrally related to the first problem. It was a bold, quixotic idea to stage the whole thing in the round, actually more "in the square," as we're seated (quite limb-crushingly uncomfortably, it must be added) on carpeted risers against four walls of a frustratingly non-specific room. The space and the staging are challenges I don't think this production ever surmounts. The invigorated naturalism Baker and Gold do so well, as they must realize themselves, only seems effortless, but it's as crafted and calibrated as a piece of music, and it relies on us not doubting its reality for a second, and on us entering the world of the play as smoothly and unobtrusively as possible. But largely because of the weird, unforgiving space, this Vanya never feels real in that way; it's impossible to guess in what room we're in or what the characters are doing there, or where they go or come from when they're offstage (Serebryakov may call the place "a labyrinth," but I'm not sure we should all feel as lost as he does for the whole play); why, for an interminably long stretch of the first act, the actors are so dimly lit as to be inscrutable, even from a few feet away; or why, for a disorientingly long part of the second act, they must sprawl across the unattractive shag carpet floor (Was the place robbed of its furniture during intermission? my colleague wondered). And, it must be said, while I think Gold has largely earned his rep as a wunderkind director, the challenges of an in-the-round staging, of making it feel natural and simply observed rather than effortful, self-conscious, and sightline-defying, almost entirely defeat him here.
I get why he and Baker thought all this would work like gangbusters; I think almost every one of these actors would be great in their roles in another production of Vanya (as I more or less felt about many of the actors in Target Margin's rendition); and I even think Baker's quirky but doggedly faithful adaptation, with its many contrasting registers, might be worth another look in another production. The good news for Soho Rep is that most critics don't agree with me, and seem to see instead the Vanya that Baker and Gold envisioned; the bad news, as far as I'm concerned, is that those unfamiliar with this great, great play will be bored stiff by it.
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 11:07 AM