Jun 18, 2012

Realism and Its Discontents

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.


David Cote said...

Hi Rob: I think you're making the same mistake with Vanya that you made with One Man Two Guvnors. OMTG is not farce done badly, as you argued, it's a farce hybrid that succeeds on its own terms.

Similarly, it's useless to hold the Baker/Gold Vanya up to some standard of naturalism (or hyper-naturalism, whatever that is) and complain about sightlines and furnishings. It's an installation that makes use of extremely naturalistic acting, sure, but it's not Naturalism, nor does it try to be. The mismatched furniture, the giant UNCLE VANYA sign in Russian, the sometimes awkward placement of actors, the contemporary attitudes brushing up against the now-obscure Russian cultural references—all this is very consciously deployed to create an effect, a mood, and a way of seeing Vanya anew. It's anything but naturalistic.

Do I care that I had to stare at the back of Maria Dizzia's head for a few minutes? Of course not. This isn't proscenium theater--we can see that the minute we enter the space, so a little three-dimensional thinking is required.

Basically, this Vanya was an attempt to adapt a very well known classic with total honesty and sensitivity. It wasn't trying to be "Russian" or "tragicomic" or "melancholy" or "Chekhovian." I found it immediate, engrossing and very touching. The actors are amazing. I feel like this is a case of a work of art showing us how it should be viewed, and some critics insist on putting on their old glasses.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

David, thanks for responding. Your lovely review in Time Out expresses exactly what I thought/hoped I would get from this Vanya but just didn't. (Though I should point o ut that the word Annie translates so memorably as "creep," and Paul Schmidt as "freak," is actually "chudak," or чудак.)

On some level, my failure to get from these shows what you and the vast majority of critics and audiences got out of them is my failure, and my loss. All I'm working with here is my subjective experience of being almost entirely unmoved by this Vanya (and OMTG), and these posts represent my attempt to figure out why. Maybe I haven't named or described the problems I saw correctly (farce, naturalism, whatever), but these labels are the blunt tools of criticism. I do know that I wasn't able to enter the unfiltered, honest world of this play, where all the great acting you witnessed was apparently going on, because of the staging's weird mix of affectless-ness and abstraction. For me, the show's lack of calibration and crafting, and the absence of specificity, wasn't some concept I applied upon reflection; I felt these shortcomings on a visceral level. I think they prevented me from seeing, let alone feeling, the same play you did.

And while I'd like to say I didn't go in wearing prescriptive glasses about how Chekhov should be done, with a play I know this well, I know what I've felt from other productions and I can't help but compare; I do think I was open to feeling new things from this version, but what I felt mostly was boredom, particularly at some key moments that usually register with pain, desperation, humor. I don't think this is because of some ideal image of the play I have in my head; I loved the unfiltered honesty of the Andre Gregory/Louis Malle film, for instance, despite issues with the Mamet translation and the arguably narrow range of Wallace Shawn's Vanya. I was able to forget all that and just experience the play anew in that version. But the Baker/Gold Vanya, by contrast, felt to me effortful and strained, so that even when it would flash a glimmer of brilliance (Peter Friedman's uncomprehending pause as Serebryakov when challenged by Reed Birney's Vanya, for instance, or most of what Maria Dizzia was trying to do, without much help from anyone else onstage), it felt frustratingly isolated, lost in the production's general un-clarity.

And seriously, what happened to the furniture in Act Two?

David Cote said...

Rob: As always, I admire (hell, envy) your ability to take a contrary position and honestly, persuasively argue it. Not just for contrariety's sake, either. Thanks for the clarification on chudak/freak/creep. I wasn't trying to say that that word was strange or stran-nee, just that strange and its related words are peppered throughout Chekhov. (When I saw Three Sisters in Russian out a BAM, it seemed like every fourth word was "stran-nee.") That was my entry point into the Baker: Differences of culture and historical period aside, she and Chekhov share a profound appreciation for human weirdness.

Reed Birney said...

Rob, my goodness, you hated our play! Yikes. I hope you had a better time at The Aussies tonight, even with their being pitched so high!

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Reed, thanks for commenting. I'm sorry I didn't connect with this VANYA, and I do mean that not only as an apology but as a genuine sorrow--as I said, I couldn't have more wanted to like it. I'll just add that your show is a success with nearly everyone who's seen it that I've heard from or read, so it really is my loss; and also that if the above were a full review rather than a blog response, I would have duly accounted for more of the excellent work that is in the production, including many elements of your fine, intelligent, full-hearted performance. You are a great actor, and I'll still line up to see you in anything.