Audience Members May Want To Check Their Reactions at This Intimate Space

A performance of the Chekhov classic ‘Uncle Vanya’ is one of 16 being presented through July 16 before audiences numbering just 40 in a loft at Manhattan’s Flatiron District.

Emilio Madrid
Virginia Wing, Will Brill, and David Cromer in 'Uncle Vanya.' Emilio Madrid

A few nights ago, I sat close enough to the great stage actor Bill Irwin to give him a dirty look he could have spotted with ease had his focus been on me. It wasn’t intentional, or even personal; I was just reacting to Mr. Irwin playing the arrogant, whiny professor Serebryakov, the most patently, comically loathsome of the complex and beautifully drawn characters in “Uncle Vanya,” in a production staged for only 40 attendees in a loft at Manhattan’s Flatiron District.

The performance of the Chekhov classic was one of 16 being presented through July 16 before audiences of that size ($20 tickets are available via digital lottery here) in the private space, which has been refurbished by an accomplished scenic designer, Walt Spangler. A long wooden table is the centerpiece of Mr. Spangler’s set, with a plush sofa positioned on one side and a piano surrounded by art and old photos on the other, adjacent to a modern kitchen that has been crammed with books and wine bottles.

Ricky Reynoso has costumed the splendid ensemble cast accordingly, to suggest contemporary variations on the cultured, frustrated bourgeoisie Chekhov introduced as the 19th century was ending. Julia Chan, cast as Serebryakov’s much younger wife, Yelena, first appears in a rose sundress and later models a slinky but elegant beige pantsuit. Marin Ireland, playing Vanya’s far less glamorous niece, Sonya, sports tomboyish garb such as a bulky sweatshirt and a baseball cap.

The result, given the physical proximity enjoyed by audience members — some of whom may find themselves, as I did, literally sitting next to actors at points — is that you feel part of the fraught gatherings and heated exchanges that occur at all hours in the country estate Vanya manages, as you might if visiting a similarly charged group at a Hamptons or Woodstock summer home. You’re bound, in fact, to feel implicated in the play’s enduringly relevant debates, which touch on matters from class conflict to climate change. 

For the uninitiated, “Uncle Vanya” unfolds as the title character is hosting Yelena and Serebryakov, who was previously married to Vanya’s late sister, the estate’s owner. The couple’s arrival has upended day-to-day life, not only for Vanya — who pines for Yelena and bitterly resents Serebryakov, viewing the professor as an intellectual fraud sustained by the work of others — but for other residents and regular guests.

There’s Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter by his first marriage, who has been tireless in helping her uncle maintain her mother’s home and thus sustain her father’s easier existence. Sonya is hopelessly in love with the local doctor, Astrov, an ardent environmentalist and alcoholic who begins turning up at the house more frequently, at first responding to the gout-addled Serebryakov’s complaints but then because he, too, is beguiled by Yelena.  

Using Paul Schmidt’s popular translation of Chekhov’s text, director Jack Serio underscores the extent to which these characters can be both selfish and self-defeating without underplaying their humanity. David Cromer, whose blazing intuition as a director has earned him praise on and off-Broadway and in regional theater, reminds us what a supple, engaging actor he is, mining the layers of Vanya’s suffering and growing anger with both wit and compassion, so that we feel the full weight of his despair in the end.

Ms. Chan’s feline Yelena is sexy and nuanced, so that you feel some sympathy for the boredom she constantly complains of, despite her willful idleness and limited empathy. She’s well matched with Will Brill’s sardonic Astrov, who for all his passionate social concerns cannot, by his own admission, commit to loving people as individuals. Mr. Irwin, predictably, plays up Serebryakov’s comedic and repulsive qualities without reducing him to a cartoon, and Will Dagger, Ann McDonough, and Virginia Wing lend warm, witty support in other roles.

Yet the throbbing heart of this “Uncle Vanya” belongs to the most selfless and pitiable of its characters, Sonya; Ms. Ireland’s performance in the role is as scorching as it is richly shaded and utterly lacking in vanity. Watching her try to reassure Mr. Cromer’s weeping Vanya at the end, even as her own dreams have been freshly shattered, I felt even more compelled to see this story through her eyes — just as Chekhov’s title encourages us to, come to think of it.

The New York Sun

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