Review: Savor High-Def Chekhov in a Marvelously Intimate ‘Uncle Vanya’

In this hugely satisfying production—staged in a loft at Broadway and 19th Street—an ace ensemble squeezes every last drop of comedy, pathos, and dread from Chekhov’s 1899 play.

Will Brill, left, and David Cromer in Uncle Vanya. Emilio Madrid

Uncle Vanya | 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. | Home Studios | 873 Broadway 

During a long (deliberately tedious) monologue in Uncle Vanya’s third act, Doctor Astrov (Will Brill) unrolls a series of maps he has drawn that track local biodiversity. In diagrams that go back 50 years, Astrov shows Yelena (Julia Chan) how trees, elk, and other natural features have dwindled due to deforestation, threatening environmental collapse. “In about 10 or 15 years it’ll be total,” he concludes. “What we’re seeing here is the result of an uncontrolled struggle for survival.” On the one hand, bravo Anton Chekhov for calling climate change a century early. On the other, Astrov’s true subject is the decline of the inhabitants of the house. Middle-aged misanthrope Vanya (David Cromer), sensual but depressed Yelena, even youthful Sonya (Marin Ireland) are strip-mining their souls to stay alive—even if they’d be happier dead.

Barbara Kingsley, Will Dagger, Julia Chan, Virginia Wing (back), and Thomas Jay Ryan (from left) in Uncle Vanya. Emilio Madrid

If that doesn’t sound like an invigorating night at the theater, let me clarify: this “hyperintimate” production of Chekhov’s 1899 play is hugely satisfying, a great piece of music from which an ace ensemble squeezes every last drop of comedy, pathos, and dread. Directed with exquisite tonal sensitivity by Jack Serio with a cast of MVP stage animals, the only gimmick is location. The OHenry production takes place in private loft at Broadway and 19th Street (an earlier run took place in a different loft in the Flatiron district). About 85 audience members fit in the bare space, which set designer Walt Spangler has decorated with farmhouse tables, tasteful tea kettles and dishes, and a shiny silver kitchen island. It’s all very Crate & Barrel—or a fancier version of Crate & Barrel that I can’t afford.  

Similarly, the audience vibe the night I attended was très Hudson Valley: well-heeled culture vultures who looked right at home in the cottagecore milieu. Like many of Chekhov’s characters, they seemed like the idle rich on the eve of a revolution they didn’t see coming. For a moment I imagined I was back at the New Group’s The Seagull/Woodstock, NY. Anyway, one gladly puts aside sociological musings as the action begins. Wryly maternal servant Marina (Virginia Wing) totters on, soon joined by Astrov, who observes that in the years he’s been visiting her house, he’s become a “freak.” The good doctor isn’t the only one; everyone in this house is deformed by unfulfillment. Embittered Vanya is horny for his brother-in-law’s much younger second wife, Yelena. She in turn hates her marriage to the pompous pedant Serebryakov (Thomas Jay Ryan), worshiped by Vanya’s dilettantish mother (Barbara Kingsley). The professor’s daughter, Sonya, pines pathetically for Astrov. And Astrov, an idealist for nature, is a cynical drunk tormented by the patients he lost. All form a daisy chain of disenchantment.

Julia Chan and Will Brill in Uncle Vanya. Emilio Madrid

What’s gained by staging Chekhov in the round, with actors just feet away, sometimes lit only by a candle? It’s what you’d expect: a wonderfully intense experience of the text. The laughs—the playwright did intend comic moments—land surprisingly well, helped by Cromer’s sardonic deadpan and impeccable timing. Paul Schmidt’s muscular translation is from 1997, but feels utterly fresh, with a light dusting of profanity and the lucidity of aforementioned climate change issues. Still, it’s the physical performances that linger in memory. The way Brill’s spindly and unkempt Astrov is prone to burying his head in hands, fingers digging into his skull. Ryan as the gouty and spoiled Serebryakov, swanning about like a princess deigning to visit the peasants. Will Dagger’s Telegin, a timid, mealy-mouthed local who haunts the periphery with his guitar like a particularly musical dog. Languorous and gamine Chan lolls gorgeously in Ricky Reynoso’s chic frocks. And Marin Ireland, a Class A drug for New York theatergoers, crafts a gawky, manic tomboy troubled by her “plain” looks yet capable of the superhuman hope expressed in Vanya’s shattering last speech. Ireland uses everything: fluting voice, emotions lightning-flashing across her pale face, a slim but athletic frame that can crumple up in shame, perch on furniture in glee, or sprint from a chair to watch her last chance at happiness drive away. For those truly in love with the form, it isn’t enough that regular venues reopened; we need to share these great actors’ air, witness their close-up magic.

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Review: Savor High-Def Chekhov in a Marvelously Intimate ‘Uncle Vanya’