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Uncle Vanya

Reed Birney is marvelous as the title character in Sam Gold's highly affecting, remarkably atmospheric production of Anton Chekhov's classic drama.

Reed Birney in Uncle Vanya
(© Julieta Cervantes)
The sense of living on top of another, with no room for escape, has always been central to Anton Chekhov's masterpiece Uncle Vanya, but it's never been as brilliantly conveyed as in Sam Gold's highly affecting production of this seminal work, now at Soho Rep.

Credit here is due not just to Gold, but also set designer Andrew Lieberman, who has placed the audience firmly inside the Russian country dacha -- by building a low-ceilinged wood roof, which tops a smallish playing area (outfitted in thrift shop-looking furniture), while viewers sit all around on cushioned, carpeted risers.

The effect is slightly voyeuristic at times (especially since an actor might be standing right next to you or at your feet), but also makes the audience feel intimately involved in the group's trials and tribulations.

It's inside these claustrophobic four walls where the middle-aged Vanya (the marvelous Reed Birney, who captures all of the character's frustration, melancholy, and loneliness) struggle to connect with his family -- or get anything done -- thanks primarily to the unwelcome presence of his needy, former brother-in-law, Alexander, a pompous university professor (perfectly embodied by Peter Friedman) and his young wife, Yelena (the ineffably sad Maria Dizzia).

While Vanya is unrequitedly in love with her -- or at least her beauty and promise of youth -- the terminally bored Yelena enchants (and frustrates) almost everyone in the house, most notably visiting doctor Astrov (Michael Shannon), a man more interested in the environment than medicine, booze than the environment, and ultimately Yelena more than anything or anyone else.

An emotionally stunted if highly intelligent man -- a condition which Shannon conveys with his offbeat, sometimes affectless line readings -- Astrov barely notices the outpouring of adoration from Alexander's kind, plain daughter, Sonia (Merritt Wever, often channeling her character of Zoe from Showtime's Nurse Jackie.)

Indeed, he appears to only have any true affection for housekeeper Marina (the priceless Georgia Engel, offering up a sublime portrait of a woman who lives in a world of realism and optimism, often simultaneously).

As much as the set lends the play its needed atmosphere, it would be hard to stay uninvolved in any case, given not just the committed work of the cast (which also includes fine turns from Rebecca Schull, Matthew Maher, and Paul Turreen) -- but Annie Baker's strikingly colloquial (yet remarkably faithful) translation. Her dialogue not only rarely feels anachronistic, but eliminates any distance we might feel from these universal characters first created over 100 years ago, but recognizable to -- and in -- each one of us.