"The future hasn't arrived. It is all still
A dream, a night sweat to be swum off
in a wonderland of sand and bread.
When we woke afterward, the houses
were still standing, the green just as green,
but the seaweed had thickened and the lamp
at the end of the dock had cracked."
-Meghan O'Rourke, "Twenty-First Century Fireworks"
Apparently it was the summer of the Vanya revivals in New York this year, but my schedule only let me have a trip that overlapped with Annie Baker's re-imagining. I've read a couple of translations since I fell in love with Chekhov in High School, seen a couple of productions but I've never seen one better than this and I've never hard crisp lines that got it and drove it home as well as this wonder.
Thestage set by Andrew Lieberman with props by Kate Foster had the audience ringing the action and sitting - incredibly uncomfortably - on carpeted risers. The set is a living room with a noticeable trap door and glowing Cyrillic letters on one wall, the title of the play, dotted with furniture. The overall effect was menace and grief but it also felt lived-in, the country estate really does feel isolated and unkempt and a little bit claustrophobic.
Annie Baker's adaptation - and really interesting costume designs - is astonishing. The emotions all feel relatable but strange, of a piece with her original plays but unmistakably Chekov. She chipped away everything Sam Gold's direction was a wonder of marvelous spinning spheres, psychological and physical action and bodies in conjunction with one another and with the oddly laid-out audience. Everything I've seen him do, even things I didn't think worked 100% like Theresa Rebeck's Seminar and Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still, are always marked by distinctive, true performances and a level of constant motion that doesn't feel forced, always fed by the meat of the play.
The acting is superlative. Michael Shannon as Astrov sums up the man collapsing in on himself from boredom and frustration and ennui, every line he says carries more weight as it crumbles off his lips, hitting his mustache. Going from breaking Sonya's heart with "I no longer expect anything of myself and I don't think I'm capable of really loving people" to his acid rejoinder to Yelena, "You have infected us with your uselessness" to the tragic hammer of his summation to Vanya, "You know, I used to think that being a creep meant you were sick or abnormal, but lately I've come to the conclusion that we're all creeps. Everyone in the world, behaving naturally, is a complete creep." Reed Birney as the title character continues his sleeper trajectory started with Sarah Kane's Blasted to being the great stage actor of this moment of fear and instability, broad strokes created by the tiniest of gestures, in this case adding to a man who didn't die early enough to be a tragic figure, he had to keep living with his earnestness and his faith in others and his love of his family and it didn't quite destroy him. The spark is reduced to flickering as the sweetness and decency appear in flashes under a twisting mockery of what he used to be but Birney never plays him hopeless and never lets the audience forget why he's so respected by this gang of misfits.
Georgina Engel, a less ambitious analogue to Vanya and an indictment of how women were perceived in those days, the loving caretaker of the home, is very, very good. Matthew Maher as "Waffles", after his acne scars, gets laughs but communicates an immense amount of pain without going for obvious audience pandering. Merritt Weaver as Sonya was the light bulb moment for me, she holds the production together and is so heartbreaking in her acceptance of her grey state and even more in her brief flashes of joy and hope. The other actors are uniformly fine.
This is the kind of play that makes me love theater more and love life more. It makes me want to be a better person and love all the people who were there and experienced it with me and feel just a little sorry for everyone who didn't see it. It makes me want to be better and make something good.