by Lisa Joy Reitman-Dobi
When I say Chehkov, what comes to mind? I asked two Millennials, who made it clear that they are not those Millennials.
“Emptiness and alcohol.”
“What if I were to add Facebook, selfies and Cards Against Humanity?”
I smiled. Why? Drunkle Vanya is everything you always wanted in Russian literature but were afraid to ask.
Adapter and director, Lori Wolfer Hudson, has (re)created Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in an unforgettably fresh, riotous, immersive production. To successfully infuse an iconic Russian work with comedy requires ingenuity, wisdom, work and wit. Above all, it requires respect for and an understanding of the original text. Lori Wolfer Hudson nails it in every department.
Marvelously off-the-wall, this streamlined version of the play is true to the plot. Given that Chekhov’s stories are character-driven, there is no greater testament to the excellence of these actors. When distinctly individuated, Chekhovian personalities burst with contemporary colloquialisms, spontaneous ad-lib and scrumptiously germane references to WebMD – you’re in the presence of exquisite talent.
The show is set in Tolstoy’s Lounge, a room situated above the boisterous restaurant, Russian Samovar. An exotically lit stairway leads to a charmingly appointed parlor. This intimate setting –and set- is outfitted in a style best described as Victoriana á la Russe: walls and shelves are filled with portraits of monarchs and oligarchs, books, paintings, candles and an assortment of vintage samovars.
As the seating was completed and various orders taken, the background music, in this case, the best of the Ramones, was cut. Vanya (Joel Rainwater) took the floor and delivered an amusing and engaging orientation: “I am Vanya! There will be shots! There will be drinking games…and more shots…dysfunctional family meetings…with shots… We are in Russia, and yes, I get the irony… more shots… I’m way off script… Where’s my shot… Ahhh! I’m so miserable!”
Thus lamenting his wretched existence, Vanya has opened Act One.
His despair? Financial straits have forced Vanya’s newly remarried, urban brother-in-law, the Professor, (Sean Tarrant) to move in with Vanya and his niece, Sonya (Leah Walsh). Sonya is, in fact, the Professor’s daughter by his late wife, the beloved sister of poor Vanya. (As The World Turns has nothing on Anton Chekhov.) The Professor brings with him his young, gorgeous wife, Yelena, (Amanda Sykes), his snobbery and an assortment of ailments. Astrov, (Christopher Tocco) the local doctor, is practically in residence, as is a down-on-his-luck tech-savvy neighbor, nicknamed Waffles (Josh Sauerman). Life in the bleak country manor has been turned upside-down. The house is rife with lust, vodka, despair, vodka, broken dreams, vodka, unrequited love, vodka, disillusionment, more vodka, Instagram, Smirnoff’s Ice and four-star improv.
Lacking the space to describe each player, I give you the cast: effervescent, sexy, brooding, wild, adorable, intense, talented, trained and funnier than any line up on Comedy Central.
I could cite several moments that now rank among the funniest in my theater experience. But that would be short-changing future audience members. Suffice to say that I was sure I saw a frenzied Raffi (The League) tear open his shirt and deliver one of the best comedic scenes ever –or never- written.
Can’t recall your high school Chekhov? This tight, full throttle performance gives you all you need. Even the obligatory exposition is hilarious. A sold-out room reflected a broad spectrum of generations and ages. Every face registered Absolut merriment. (I just had to…) This is the magic of top tier theater.
Tickets are priced according to the patron’s choice of class: “Members of the Imperial Family and Aristocrats” are seated in the faded glory of gilt-edged sofas; the “Bourgeoisie” enjoy the practical comfort of couches and chairs along the lines of Bob’s Furniture; the “Proletariat,” of which I was a member, sit on ornate stools at the bar: metal but remarkably easy on the derrière.
Beverage and food selections vary with your selected social standing. However, the full bar overrides class distinction, as does a snack menu featuring pirogues, potato dumplings and a savory cheese pastry.
There are those who assume that turning a classic play on its side is a gimmick. They confuse facile parody with inspired comedy. To these people, I say, “Get thee to Tolstoy’s Lounge.”
Drunkle Vanya is inspired brilliance. It is adoringly irreverent, fabulously original and hands-down irresistible. Fancy creating an uproarious immersive production of an unconventional 19th century dramaturge, a piece rich in philosophical, yet ironic, psycho-social commentary? Skip the work; see the show.
Drunkle Vanya is produced by Three Day Hangover, (Drunk Shakespeare.) The production team consists of Beth Gardiner, David Hudson and Lori Wolfson, with Hudson Gambourg, Darren Sussman and Misha von Shats. Costumes are designed by Caitlin Cleek,. Brooke Bell is the production Stage Manager.
Drunkle Vanya is performed at 7:30 on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays. Tolstoy’s Lounge is located above Russian Samovar, at 256 West 52 St.
The show has been extended through April 15. GO!
Spread the word, bring your friends, have a blast!
For more information, visit www.drunklevanya.com