Just the mere announcement of a new production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at SoHo Rep, the venturesome Tribeca-based theater company, generated much excitement among New York theater aficionados; the quickly sold-out, initially six-week run is now extended through July 22. A century-old Russian classic is unusual programming for the Obie-award winning company best known as an incubator for contemporary work by emerging writers, but what makes this production noteworthy is the thrilling alignment of three of the brightest talents working in New York theater today: playwright Annie Baker, who adapted a new version of the text, director Sam Gold, and actor Reed Birney in the title role. The three previously worked together on Circle Mirror Transformation, Baker’s keenly observed and deeply felt 2009 drama about a group of people in an acting class. The 31-year-old playwright, whose work includes Body Awareness and Aliens, is one of the leading writers of her generation, while Gold, age 34, is one of the most sought-after directors in town. Birney may not be a marquee name, but he’s one of the finest actors working today in New York City theater. He started his career at age 22 playing the juvenile lead in Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, an Off Broadway hit which went on to enjoy a successful run on Broadway in the mid 1970s. More than three decades later, he experienced a career resurgence with his uncompromising performance in the 2008 New York premiere of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. In 2011, after a remarkable season in which he appeared in three new Off-Broadway plays (Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still, Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, and David West Read’s The Dream of the Burning Boy), the 57-year-old actor was awarded a special award from the Drama Desk for his body of work. We recently spoke with the actor about his career and his current role.
How did this Uncle Vanya come about?
Annie first started talking to me about playing Uncle Vanya during Circle Mirror Transformation, which was two years ago. She said she would like to write a translation of Uncle Vanya for me. She and Sam [Gold] were quite serious about it and said they would love to do it at SoHo Rep, where I had done Blasted. Annie and Sam are remarkable artists on their own, but together they are a force to be reckoned with. I’d like to work with them for the rest of my life.
Is there something special about their approach to Chekhov?
Both Annie and Sam are interested in the intricacies of real life and real relationships. One of the conversations we continually had during Circle Mirror, and we have had certainly during Uncle Vanya, is what if this were a real-life situation? How do these people relate when they are in the room together? Sam has said, and I think he’s right, that he feels that Chekhov’s plays are never as good as when you are sitting around in your living room reading the plays with your friends, drinking beer, and eating chili. You go see productions of them and you can’t believe they are the same plays that you had this profound experience with. He said, “How can we recreate the intimacy of that experience reading those plays?” So that’s really the main thrust of this production: What if these people just were talking to each other in the situation that the play is asking? Sam said a year ago, “I would love for this play to have the same impact on an audience watching it today that it had in 1898.” Some of the audiences [at SoHo Rep] are a foot away from the actors. It’s very intimate, and in its non-theatricality you have such a deeply theatrical experience.
You don’t seem to be playing it any specific period…
No. I think Sam felt that by throwing a lot of bustles and parasols and high-top shoes into the mix, it sort of distances the play from the immediacy of the action. It’s weird, because we have a samovar and none of the text has been updated. It isn’t set in 2012, but we’re just in our clothes and all the furniture is from a thrift shop. It doesn’t feel like 1898 Russia necessarily, but it feels like the play. It’s a remarkable trick. I don’t know quite how he did it.
What have you discovered personally, working on this role?
I didn’t know the play that well. I had only read it in college, and when you’re that young you’re just looking for the part that you could play; I never in a million years thought I would be old enough to play Vanya. You know, he’s so unhappy, and confused and lost. I’m very touched by Uncle Vanya, honestly, and feel like he’s me 25 years ago. I feel like his despair is a state I recognize from an earlier time in my life. It has actually been a little therapeutic for me. I’ve never quite felt this sensation of revisiting myself. It’s been a beautiful thing and quite moving for me.
Some people find humor in Chekhov, and others find his characters quite annoying at times. How do you feel about them?
I think we’ve found a lot of humor in the play. One of the things that Sam has really stressed is that these people are very self-aware and they know what they sound like. And so even when they’re in their most profound despair, there’s an awareness, and even a gentle self-mocking that goes on. I think there’s a lot of pain in the play, as there is in the human experience. But I feel like Chekhov has such enormous compassion for his people that it’s easy to find the humor and the humanity in it. It’s been really a thrill to explore.
You mentioned a period of despair from earlier in your life. Did that have anything to do with the trajectory of your career after your debut with Gemini?
Yes. I did start well out of the gate. Of course, as a young actor I had great expectations, and, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t happening. I felt like I was doing my job, but people weren’t buying, it seemed. One spends a lot of time in fallow periods where you think, “What have I done wrong? Should I have done this play instead of that? Should I have moved to California?” And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s deeply confusing because you’re so aware of time passing and opportunities going by. In dissecting my career, Gemini was such an iconic play in the ’70s, and Randy, my character, his leading characteristic was that he was ordinary. I really think, in a funny way, it hurt me for a long time after that, because Randy was such a goof ball and I think people really thought of me just as that guy. I think what I’ve learned is that I really needed to be older to express myself in the way I should be expressing myself—that, as a young actor, the parts weren’t right for me. It really wasn’t until Blasted that things changed, both for me personally and professionally. And the irony was that it was a part that I would never ever have thought I would play.
You certainly impressed everyone with your fearlessness in that role. What was it like to expose yourself like that on stage?
I really thought they had made a mistake when they asked me to do it. And I was scared by it. But the fact that it scared me so much made me wanna do it. On page three of the script, my character takes his clothes off and says, “Put your mouth on me.” I thought, “Oh, my God, how will I ever be able to do this?” So the way I approached it was, I took my clothes off on the third day of rehearsal. I didn’t want it to be looming, and there was a lot that needed to be worked out around that moment. Once I did that and didn’t die, I felt like Superman! I felt like I could do anything. And the other thing that was remarkable about Blasted was that the character was so far away from me; there was no overlap at all. So it was like playing cops and robbers. I got to have a gun; I got to be a bad guy. I also knew that there was no way it would work if there was any embarrassment around it. I really just had to do it. And it was great lesson in exactly that. When I had to masturbate, I thought, “All right, this is what they keep talking about in acting class, where you just have to be completely alone in the room and the audience isn’t there.” The play did exactly what you want art to do: it nourished me. It was so liberating and so empowering, and in fact, I think, I realized in that time that I became the actor I had always wanted to be.
Would you say then that all the waiting you experienced during the fallow period of your career has helped you as an actor?
Oh yes, all of it. It all feels like it has unfolded in absolutely the right way. I actually think I’m enormously lucky that I didn’t become a big star, which was the fantasy—that I was going to have a big movie career. I certainly would have loved having the money of a movie star, but other than that I feel like I am absolutely doing the work that I always dreamed of doing as an actor. [This production is] downtown and it’s for 75 people, but it’s just exactly what I want to do. I will also say that this generation of playwrights and directors, Annie’s generation, they seem to understand me better than my peer group does. I don’t quite know why, but they appreciate me in a way that I never was before.