Theater for hard times, or: Getting there is half the fun

Soho Rep’s Uncle Vanya’ in New York

5 minute read
Dizzia, Shannon: Where does the stage end?
Dizzia, Shannon: Where does the stage end?
Sunday, August 12. On Twitter, New York's Soho Rep Theater Tweets: " Tonight is your chance to see Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep for only Ninety-Nine cents! Come on down to 46 Walker Street!"

9:30 a.m. Diehard Chekhovians park themselves in lawn chairs to wait in line to see Annie Baker's fresh 21st-Century adaptation of Uncle Vanya— proof that Soho Rep successfully attracts one of the youngest adult theatergoing audiences in New York (more than three-fifths under age 40).

7:30 p.m.
Soho Rep opens its doors to anyone, regardless of income bracket. These theater tickets are cheaper than a subway ride. The tricky task is getting in.

3:30 p.m. The line stretches the entire length of Walker Street. Soho Rep's box office manager, William Burke— wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers— democratically informs us that only 73 tickets will be sold today. Soho Rep is a 73-seat theater.

The 74th person in line is an aspiring actress/restaurant hostess named Alana Ward, who moved to New York from Florida two years ago. As the 75th person in line, I'm determined to see Vanya today. I figure someone ahead of us is bound to get tired. But no one moved. The line seems to generate its own enthusiasm.

These 99-cent Sundays are just one of the dynamic contexts that Soho Rep creates to promote and sustain attention. In this scenario, gaining access to Uncle Vanya becomes something like being ushered into Studio 54 during that nightclub's heyday in 1978. Unlike Studio 54, Soho Rep has built an outstanding reputation since 1975 as forefront of new and innovative theater. Kevin Spacey made his professional debut at Soho Rep, not Studio 54.

7:25 p.m.
Burke, given the thankless task of sticking his head out the door, tells us to go home; the theater is filled to capacity.

Second attempt

Saturday, August 18, 11 a.m. I return to stand on the cancellation line for the matinee; this time the line consists of only five people; I'm second.

Uncle Vanya is the second draft of Chekhov's failed 1887 play, The Wooden Demon, which he revised after spending three months interviewing convicts in a penal colony on Sakhalin Island. If Chekhov can produce Uncle Vanya in two drafts, I can attempt to see his play twice.

1:45 p.m. Michael Shannon, an actor in the cast (he plays Doctor Astrov), slips past the line, ducking into the theater with iPod buds in his ears and a messenger bag swung over his shoulder.

2:45 p.m. Will Burke opens the door, and says: "I can take four people." Finally, I walk through Soho Rep's black doors and into the Serebryakov estate.

The space is covered in plush sand-colored carpet. After standing on hard concrete for four hours, my feet are grateful. In the program, Eric Grode explains that my psyche should be grateful as well: "Both of these worlds— the fading estate and the no-frills seating area— are covered by the same carpeting, blurring the line between the audience and the characters," he writes.

"'Climb over my head'

But first things first: I must search for a seat. I'm surrounded on all sides by 72 people, sitting Indian-style on pillows on raised tiers watching me. You see, I'm the last person to find a seat. The only remaining seat is directly behind the actor Kevin Kline, who tells me: "Climb up, climb over my head— it's fine." Pretense is left outside on Walker Street; inside, it's pure kindergarten-story time.

The estate in which we now sit is central to the story of Uncle Vanya. Sonya (Merritt Wever) manages the estate that she inherited from her late mother with the assistance of aging servants and her Uncle Vanya (Reed Birney). Then her professor father (Peter Friedman) and his young wife, Yelena (Maria Dizzia), descend for a visit, disrupting the household's cozy routine.

All the performances are so organically delivered that it was easy to forget we were watching a play; instead we were watching people deal with the hot-button-political issues of this election year.

Green Party candidate?

The play begins effortlessly on Michael Shannon as the environmentally conscious vegetarian, Doctor Astrov. Draped over his shoulder is the same messenger bag I saw him carrying outside the theater; but now he holds a teacup instead of an iPod. Astrov could easily be mistaken for a Green Party candidate for President when he declares, "The Russian forest is being decimated. Millions of trees perish, animals and birds look for a new place to live, and rivers recede. This wonderful, sacred landscape is disappearing."

Shannon's Astrov makes an attractive combination of intellect and playful rock star-sexual magnetism. When Sonya offers him cheese and he snags it with his mouth directly off the plate, it's a no-brainer as to why Sonya and Yelena are so drawn to him. As Sonya, Wever (who is beautiful) says, "I know I'm not pretty," but her weak cadence— revealing a young woman denied an education— is the magnet that will attract Doctor Astrov. Yelena, by contrast, is an educated woman deprived of an opportunity to use it; she owns a piano she is not allowed to play.

Waffles (Matthew Mahur)— an impoverished neighbor who has become a dependent of the family— has been dealt a raw deal in life, but his indefatigable optimism is hilariously refreshing. Reed Birney as Vanya, when told the house is being sold out from under him sits on the ground at audience level, his arms hugging his knees, while Friedman's Professor stands above him like a failed executive informing his employees that the business is tanking.

I found myself wondering: How many of the 99-centers in the audience lost their jobs or pensions in much the same fashion in the aftermath of the Crash of 2008? Who needs dumb shows and noise? Uncle Vanya is playing everywhere you turn.♦

To read responses, click here.

What, When, Where

Uncle Vanya. By Anton Chekhov; adapted by Annie Baker; Sam Gold directed. Through August 26, 2012 at Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., New York. (212) 941-8632 or

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