NEW YORK (AP) — Move over, Vanya, and let the ladies shine a little.
The disarmingly intimate "Uncle Vanya" currently performing at Soho Rep is a lively new adaptation by playwright Annie Baker. Directed with contemporary clarity by Sam Gold, it's a very intense, realistic production enacted by a masterful ensemble of off-Broadway A-listers.
Baker's fresh approach creates an atmosphere as timeless as the foibles of Anton Chekhov's 1899 characters, and she also puts a bit more focus on the two women whose futures are so dependent on the men in their lives.
The small theater has been recast as a nondescript living room, including the audience inside the A-frame that creates the house. They are seated around the edges mere feet away from the actors, on platforms covered in the same beige carpet as the stage.
Modern clothing adorns the cast, including ill-fitting jeans and 1950's-looking pajamas, and the dialogue has unexpected, quirky updates. Embittered, weary Doctor Astrov (Michael Shannon) repeatedly uses the word "creep" to describe himself and everybody else.
Reed Birney's Vanya is bitter, sneering and almost dislikable at times in his angry self-pity, yet Birney also releases Vanya's vulnerability and humor. Peter Friedman makes the pompous, thoughtless, hypochondriacal Professor nearly sympathetic, for a change.
Seemingly petulant and bored at first, Maria Dizzia shows increasing kindness, anger and despair as the Professor's much younger trophy wife, Yelena. Merritt Wever is outstandingly forlorn and yearning as plain Sonya, long in love with family friend Astrov, whose inability to return her devotion secures his own loneliness.
Shannon is charming and passively virile as the hardworking, alcoholic Astrov, who so insensitively takes Sonya for granted and angers Yelena by pursuing her instead. Georgia Engel's sweetly good-humored Nanny and Matthew Maher's broadly comical servant Waffles provide touches of brightness that contrast with the sometimes heartbreaking moments, both large and small, presented by the others.
True to form, all the principals remain lost in their own despair, and the very walls seem to close in as Wever slowly utters Sonya's final prophecy, intended to cheer up her miserable uncle, that they must continue to live, work for others and endure, but will find rest and eternal happiness in the afterlife. Andrew Lieberman's bland, narrow set, aided by Mark Barton's increasingly gloomy lighting, adds to the suffocating atmosphere created by the characters' general passivity and hopelessness.
The production has been extended a second time, and is now running through Aug. 26. This unfussy yet emotionally rich presentation is worth the effort of folding yourself onto a platform for a couple of hours.