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Theater Review: 'Uncle Vanya' -- 3 stars

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya

Remember those high school basement parties where you and some friends would lie around on the carpet floor and drink your parents' booze? Soho Rep's unusually intimate production of Chekhov's tragicomedy "Uncle Vanya" is rather like being invited to such a party, but one that is populated by very unhappy adults.

"Uncle Vanya" observes the trials and tribulations of a mostly miserable Russian household including the middle-aged Vanya, who has come to the realization that he has wasted his entire life in service of an absent-minded professor; Yelena, the professor’s young and unhappy wife; Sonya, the professor’s sweet but unmarried and less-than-attractive daughter; and Astrov, a drunken doctor whose real passion lies in forestry.

Playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold rose to prominence two years ago with the hit Off-Broadway play “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Their “Uncle Vanya” is set around a small living room setting in which the audience surrounds the cast.
While Baker has not updated any references in the play, she has given it a contemporary American flavor that is easy to follow.
This makes for an intimate experience that allows the actors to give seemingly effortless and casual performances. But the lack of performance space, and the rather pedestrian setting, makes much of the production feel rather like a reading that lacks theatricality.

Reed Birney is an especially self-loathing and sarcastic Vanya. Michael Shannon brings his trademark intensity to Astrov. Maria Dizzia makes for a less proper, more aggressive Yelena. “Mary Tyler Moore Show” veteran Georgia Engel is terrific in the small role of the aging nurse Marina.

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