By ERIC GRODE
Between acts of Annie Baker's arresting adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, a cast member quickly unplugs the onstage lights. That way, the Soho Rep audience won't trip on the cords as they leave their seats.
Actually, "seats" is a slight misnomer. Andrew Lieberman's set is surrounded with blocky risers, bolstered by the occasional pillow for the audience to sit on. The playing space is just as subdued: A smattering of hand-me-down furniture conjures the Russian country estate that an elderly professor threatens to sell, upending his entire family's way of life.
Both of these worlds---the fading estate and the no-frills seating area---are covered by the same beige carpeting, blurring the line between the audience and a cast that includes downtown favorites like Michael Shannon, Reed Birney, Maria Dizzia, and Peter Friedman. The carpeting even climbs the walls to eye level, where it gives way to naked wood that replicates an A-frame overhead. The result is strikingly homey and low-key, providing a visual context for Baker's conversational take on the material.
Both critics and audiences have embraced the production, which recently extended through late August. However, the road to success can be rocky. "This was a really, really hard collaboration," Lieberman says, despite---or perhaps because of---the longstanding relationships that he, Baker, and director Sam Gold have shared.
Baker and Gold worked together on her last two plays, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. The latter piece featured a set by Lieberman, who designed Gold's first show in New York (a revival of Genet's The Maids) a decade ago and has teamed with him regularly since then, most recently on the Roundabout's January revival of Look Back in Anger. (They'll both be back at the Roundabout this winter to work on another mid-1950s play, Picnic.)
The Vanya collaboration had its genesis in 2008 during an extremely casual reading on a Utah hillside, and Lieberman says Gold and Baker---who also designed the costumes---hoped to replicate that feeling: "It wasn't about place or context. It was as if Sam and Annie had invited their best friends into their house for this informal reading. That was the baseline consideration."
Baker's work is notable for its rich naturalism, while Gold has shifted between a similar aesthetic (Seminar, We Live Here) and a more freewheeling directorial style (Jollyship the Whiz-Bang). All three of them agreed that the Vanya set should straddle these approaches.
And that's where the agreements ended for a while, to be replaced by a mood that the perennially discontented Vanya characters might recognize. "Because we cared about each other and cared about the play so much, we just didn't settle," Gold says. "It was always: How can we be more inventive? How can we be more connected to the play? And so it was a real wrestling match."
When asked what visual ideas were explored and discarded along the way, Lieberman says, "We couldn't even get there. We'd talk about stuff, and at least one of us---Sam, Annie or myself---would shoot down every single idea. And we're all good friends.
"It became very, very tense finding the vocabulary for this production."
The visual scheme of a show is usually in place before rehearsals, let alone before the actors begin working in the actual theatre, but with Vanya, it wasn't until the cast and crew arrived at Soho Rep that things fell into place.
Perhaps all the can'ts and don'ts along the way crystallized Lieberman's idea of what should be done. Or maybe there just wasn't any more time. One way or the other, "once we got into the theatre, I just sort of went off and tried something," he says. "And that's pretty much what you see there."
Gold says the final result made all the butting heads worth it: "Although it took time and effort, it ended up being one of the greatest collaborations." (Baker was unavailable for comment.)
"The good thing was that it all worked out very happily," agrees Lieberman. "The blend really came from hammering these things out."
Eric Grode is a theatre critic and reporter based in New York City
Photo by Julia Cervantes