You'll never be as close to a production of Uncle Vanya as you will to director Sam Gold's welcome-to-the-country-house staging at Off Broadway's Soho Rep (through July 22). In fact, you may never be that close to any theatrical production. Most of the audience is arranged not very comfortably (ladies, don't wear skirts) on carpeted risers within mere feet, sometimes inches, of the actors, the furnishings, and the electrical outlets.
Awkward kindergarten-style seating notwithstanding, the physical proximity possesses enormous emotional potential. Every one of Anton Chekhov's characters is swimming in a veritable cesspool of despair: The crotchety old Professor (Peter Friedman) has gout, or rheumatism, plus a serious case of snobbishness; his beautiful young wife, Yelena (Maria Dizzia), is ''dying'' of boredom; Vanya (Reed Birney), who's desperately, hopelessly in love with Yelena, spends his nights drinking and his days complaining (''I'm lazy and I don't do anything and I'm whiny and bitter. Like a piece of horseradish''); his niece, the homely Sonya (Merritt Wever), pines for Dr. Astrov (Revolutionary Road Oscar nominee Michael Shannon); and the doctor cares more for forests than he does for human beings. If misery loves company, 70 or so theatergoers should really get this party started.
Yet this Vanya turns out to be tragically dispassionate. It's not the fault of the text; the nimble new adaptation by Annie Baker whose 2009 hit Circle Mirror Transformation, also directed by Gold, made her a playwright to watch is right at home in 2012, with only a few jarring anachronisms. (Example: When Astrov impulsively confesses his desire for Yelena, he implores, ''Take me, bite into my head!'')
Most of the performances are just fine, save Wever; she's such a scene-stealer on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, yet here she practically fades into the furniture (what little there is). The supporting cast which includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Georgia Engel as Marina the nanny is particularly good. And Circle Mirror alum Birney, who's fast cornering the theatrical market on lovable losers, makes a wonderfully appealing misanthrope.
Which leaves the naturalistic, indie-film-style staging house lights up to indicate daytime, acting by lamplight during night scenes. It may make the audience feel closer to the action; but ultimately, it robs the show of some of its subtext. Where were Yelena's unwitting overtures toward the doctor? Or the delicate display of her influence over members of the household? There's no room for subtlety in this setup. Nor is there much comic relief and that's a shame. Personally, I like a little comedy in my Chekhovian tragicomedies. C+
(Tickets: SohoRep.org or 212-352-3101)