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Critic's Notebook: Anton Chekhov for the modern world

Soho Rep's 'Uncle Vanya' takes its time while Sydney Theatre's version moves at a quick pace. Each staging is effective, and each shows how timeless Chekhov can be.

August 04, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Russian writer Anton Chekhov around 1890-1904.
Russian writer Anton Chekhov around 1890-1904. (Keystone-France, Gamma-Keystone…)

NEW YORK — Anton Chekhov is always with us in the theater. But this summer his work has been especially prevalent, serving as an inspirational model for such contemporary playwrights as Tracy Letts, Andrew Upton and Annie Baker.

Having recently returned from a stifling hot busman's holiday in New York where I saw two productions of "Uncle Vanya," the Baker adaptation at Soho Rep and the Upton adaptation courtesy of the Sydney Theatre Company at the Lincoln Center Festival starring Cate Blanchett, I can't help pondering the meaning of this Chekhovian preponderance.

These tickets have been some of the most sought after in these thermostat-popping dog days (I'm still seeking a way to get to Chicago to see what Letts has done with the "Three Sisters"), but a question immediately presents itself: Why would these playwrights tackle the challenge of rendering these familiar classics into English when there are plenty of translations already available that fit comfortably in the mouths of 21st century actors?

Upton, who's the co-artistic director title of Sydney Theatre Company with his wife, Blanchett, has experience in translating the Russians. But Letts, author of the highly decorated "August: Osage County," and Baker, an Obie-winner for "Circle Mirror Transformation" and "The Aliens," are strictly playwriting originals. Wouldn't they — to say nothing of the future of our theater — be better served by putting their energy into their own writing?

Nonsense. Every dramatist, novice or veteran, should periodically reconnect with Chekhov, whether that means taking a shot at adapting one of his works or just marveling closely at the compositional mastery.

But these productions weren't intended as playwriting tuneups. In each case, it was a joint endeavor between a dramatist and a director of compatible sensibilities, backed by an acting ensemble uniquely capable of executing the duo's interpretive approach to a playwright whose tragicomic poise remains as enticing as it is elusive.

Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro, who collected Tonys for their fruitful collaboration in "August: Osage County," are working once again with the nonpareil Steppenwolf Theatre Company of which they are leading members. Upton invited world-class Hungarian auteur Tamás Ascher, after seeing his production of "Ivanov" a few years ago, to guide a cast of top-drawer Australian actors. And Baker joined forces with her directorial cohort and fellow wunderkind Sam Gold in a highly intimate staging that gathered some of downtown New York's most idiosyncratic talents.

The two "Vanya" offerings could hardly be more different. Gold has set his production at Soho Rep, which has become a force under the brave artistic leadership of Sarah Benson, inside a wooden house that the audience inhabits as well. His direction isn't timid of the play's natural theatricality but it's contained within a cinéma vérité style.

The actors, who modernize the deportment of their characters without altering their Chekhovian essence, are allowed to take as much time as they emotionally need in a scene. The play's rhythm, as a result, gets draggy at times, especially in the final act or whenever Merritt Wever's poignant but sluggish Sonya grapples with heartbreak. But there's an improvisational freshness to the performances, three of which (Reed Birney's Vanya, Maria Dizzia's Yelena and Peter Friedman's Professor) connect Chekhov's century to our own, much as Bart DeLorenzo managed in his scintillating "Ivanov" at the Odyssey Theatre earlier this season.

This bridging of eras seems to have been the impetus behind the Baker-Gold production, which has become the sleeper of this globally warmed New York summer. Baker's version of the play doesn't radically update the work yet she gives the language an American suppleness that allows the cast members to appear as though they are spontaneously thinking the lines up on the spot. Like her "Circle Mirror Transformation," produced at South Coast Repertory in 2011, this "Vanya" tries to capture the intense drama that is always lurking under the surface of everyday reality.

Baker and Gold's perfectly matched aesthetic offers a contemporary means of fulfilling Chekhov's oft-quote dictum about his art: "Let the things that happen on the stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up."

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