While the Russian Tea Room is almost as iconic as neighboring Carnegie Hall, it’s the Russian Samovar where expats flock for authentic grub. Tucked into a narrow spot on West 52nd Street near 8th Avenue amidst Broadway theaters, this restaurant feels like a portal to Moscow with its extensive menu of infused vodkas, dim lighting, and an overly enthusiastic piano player who can be heard from their second floor.
It’s up here in the aptly named Tolstoy’s Lounge that Drunkle Vanya has holed up through April 15th to deliver their spirited if loose adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic drama Uncle Vanya. Dark flowered wallpaper frames the spacious room lined with sofas and marble tables that look like they were acquired from a czar’s yard sale. A Tolstoy quote, “If you want to be happy, be” is printed in capital letters across the top of the back wall and is the kind of phrase that would taunt Vanya, Sonya, or any of the other characters who are consumed by pools of regret, sadness, and a paralysis to improve their lot. Melancholy hangs like a heavy persistent cloud in all of Chekhov’s most famous plays, arguably most pointedly expressed in Three Sisters where the title characters spend most of the play pinning their hopes for a good life on returning to Moscow. Spoiler alert: they never get there.
The characters in Vanya aren’t quite sure where their lives would be better. The Professor (Sean Tarrant) muses about selling the family estate, moving to the city and buying a place in Kokomo (the fictitious titular island from the Beach Boys song). This is one of many modern touches infused by adapter/director Lori Wolter Hudson. Another is getting “iced”: a game where someone hides a bottle of Smirnoff Ice and the person who finds it has to get on one knee and chug to completion. Vanya (Joel Rainwater) gets “iced” early on by his inept but sweet friend Ilya, known here as Waffles (Josh Sauerman).
The Professor is the default patriarch but it’s Vanya, the brother of his late wife, who’s sacrificed the most to preserve the family estate while his intellectual brother-in-law focused on his career. In addition to writing plays, Chekhov was a doctor by trade and prized a strong work ethic above hedonistic indulgences. Waffles articulates this as: “I may have given up my happiness, but I still have my pride.” While Hudson adheres to the basic story, her Vanya prizes letting loose. Top tier tickets dubbed “The Imperial Family” include an open bar and a feast of food from the Samovar’s menu.
A towering bowl of Vareniki, an airy potato and cheese dumpling, is hard to resist eating as finger food as are thick slices of khachapuri, the Russians take on cheesey bread made with mozzarella and feta. A fresh-from-the-oven plate arrived as Vanya delivered his opening lines in Russian followed by “I’m fucking with you” which set the raucous tone as I downed a shot of cranberry-infused vodka. Soon after he admitted as an aside, “it’s a strange time to celebrate being Russian.” Rainwater and other cast members frequently nudge through that fourth wall, creating an atmosphere of a gathering more than a performance.
As I delve into a trio of pirogies (meat, cabbage and mushroom), the cast shouts “Family Meeting,” which hits pause on the play while the actors scour the audience for a phrase to finish their last sentence. These are taken from Cards Against Humanity and printed on nametags that are handed out in lieu of playbills upon entering the space. Mine (though never selected) was: “going to an 8am meeting with a killer hangover.” The winners (“Bosnian chicken farmers” was among the chosen few) are treated to a shot of the house cranberry-infused vodka, which tastes like a noticeably tart version of the popular mixed drink.
“When your life is empty, you might as well have some fun” Vanya bellows shortly after he launches into a kazoo rendition of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” It’s a moment of defiant joy he indulges in after his advances towards the Professor’s wife Yelena (Amanda Sykes) are shut down. During intermission, Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” plays in the background, a fitting lament for characters so wrapped in “what might have been?”
Perhaps because of the free-flowing alcohol or conversational tone and audience interactions, this Vanya doesn’t deliver Chekhov’s signature cathartic wallop of despair. Elements of gallows humor are amped up and provide the momentum for this lost clan to carry on. Riffing on the playwright’s dramatic principle that if a gun is seen in the first act it must go off by the third act, a duel is turned into a drinking contest. As his conflict with the Professor comes to a head near the end, Vanya declares, “That’s right I’ve got a gun. A Shotgun.” He pulls two PBRs out of a paper bag and, after the men puncture holes in their cans, they furiously guzzle.
Photos by Britannie Bond