Chekhov’s goal was a realism that captured the disappointments, quiet desperation, and little, hard-won triumphs of life with a heartbreaking accuracy. In Uncle Vanya, these play out in hushed conversations, occasionally boiling up into arguments, inside the rooms of a Russian country estate. The click of Nanny’s knitting, the tap of the night watchman’s baton, the strum of a peasant’s guitar, and the drops of a rainstorm form the gentle basso continuo of these parleys. It’s already an intimate mise-en-scène, and one that lends itself to its current staging by Jack Serio in a small loft in New York’s Flatiron District.

Chekhov’s play shows a few days in the life of a dysfunctional family of the minor nobility. The bumbling yet parasitic Professor Serebryakov, the de facto owner of the Voinitsky estate, has arrived for a visit with his new wife, Yelena, in tow, a conservatory graduate. Enamored of this femme fatale is Ivan Voinitsky (Vanya), the brother of the Professor’s first, deceased wife. Sonya, the Professor’s daughter from that marriage, lives with Vanya and Marina, an old nanny, on the estate, which hosts frequent visits from the country doctor Astrov (Sonya’s unrequited love interest, and Vanya’s rival for Yelena’s attention) and the sycophantic yet benign peasant Telegin. Tensions explode when Yelena makes her attraction to Astrov clear but picks neither man; unhinged, Vanya confronts and assaults the Professor for his decadent life in the city at the expense of Vanya and Sonya, who labor away on the estate.

David Cromer (Vanya) & Will Dagger (Telegin) & in Jack Serio’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Emilio Madrid

Jack Serio’s production, which runs through September 3, is a very American Chekhov. The loft environment, humble kitchen table at center stage, and interlude music from the 1960s folk scene vaguely situate this Vanya in Greenwich Village at any point in the last few decades. Thus the Professor (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) tracks roughly to an NYU emeritus, Yelena (Julia Chan) to his trophy wife from Juilliard, and Vanya (David Cromer), let’s say, to a disaffected grad-school dropout. Has the country dacha become a rent-control holdout on Bleecker and MacDougal? It seems so.

Much more of a departure from typical casting is Will Brill as a scrawny and nervous Astrov, usually played as something of the assured Fortinbras to Vanya’s melancholy Hamlet. Brill comes off as a Dylanesque folkie type, eyes downcast, awkwardly shuffling back and forth on his feet, and in that way matches well with the other atypical casting in this production, which is Marin Ireland as Sonya. This is not the passive, doe-eyed Sonya of old but an impulsive, tomboyish professor’s kid. Rounding out the cast is Will Dagger as a goofy but sweet Telegin and Virginia Wing as Marina.

Marin Ireland (Sonya) & Julia Chan (Yelena) & in Jack Serio’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Emilio Madrid.

The pathways of attraction in this Vanya are less ambiguous than usual. Cromer’s middle-aged Vanya seems much better suited to Chan’s worldly Yelena; the awkward sweetness that this Sonya and Astrov share make them a natural couple as well. Here, Sonya and Astrov share a good dose of chemistry that is virtually nonexistent (and painfully so) in the text, and come within a hair’s breadth of a kiss during their nighttime meeting in the kitchen. All this makes Yelena’s coaching of Sonya’s crush on Astrov all the more calculated; here, Yelena’s dalliance with Astrov serves to interrupt a love match that actually could have been.

Paul Schmidt’s consciously Americanized translation (samovars become kettles; religious references and class distinctions are toned down) contributes to the stateside feel of this production. The characterization is American as well: In the text, some of the characters come off as oblivious and mildly solipsistic as they talk past each other (the Professor blatantly ignores his own daughter, except to shout requests; Marina, absorbed in her knitting, offers truisms rather than wading into family disputes; Telegin interjects with non-sequiturs). Serio’s characters, by contrast, exist less in isolation from one another and seem genuinely invested in each other’s fates: the Professor presents his selfish plan to sell the farm with bright-eyed optimism; Marina listens attentively to Astrov’s woes; Telegin weeps and embraces Vanya tightly during his outburst; Astrov and Sonya stare intently into each other’s eyes. All of these moments could easily be played “colder,” and often are in other productions.

Will Brill (Astrov) & Marin Ireland (Sonya) in Jack Serio’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Emilio Madrid.

The staging is touted as “immersive,” meaning that somewhere around eighty audience members pack into the loft-cum-kitchen, the actors at various times brushing past the front row and sitting down among the theatergoers. I can’t say I found it too pleasant practically to feel the spittle of the actors hit me as they yelled back and forth at close quarters—it was, if anything, reminiscent of getting caught in the crossfire of a Thanksgiving spat. But what the intimate staging does afford us is an opportunity to see the acting up close. This gives Serio the almost cinematic privilege to show the subtleties of the characters’ interactions in tender candlelit scenes, such as Sonya and Astrov’s late-night snack and Sonya’s final speech to Vanya.

Will Brill (Astrov) & Julia Chan (Yelena) & in Jack Serio’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Emilio Madrid.

It’s not a surprise that Uncle Vanya became the most popular of Chekhov’s plays in the Soviet Union. When the Moscow Art Theatre premiered the play in 1899, the critics in Moscow and Petersburg were lukewarm—but countless letters poured in from the provinces lauding Chekhov for his sympathetic portrayal of country people. Vanya’s indignation at the bourgeois Professor’s exploitation of his and Sonya’s labor can be fashioned into a metaphor for the proletariat or the peasant’s plight; Astrov, though a semi-caricature of an environmentalist—he preaches about saving trees even as an accident at the factory requires his immediate attention—can be made into a harbinger of the Revolution. Chekhov’s plays indeed ask social questions—“What is to be done?,” as Lenin famously queried two years after Vanya’s premiere. But whereas Lenin was all too happy to answer his own question, Chekhov categorically refused, leaving us with the ambiguity and variegated beauty of this very humane play.

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