Vanya on 42nd Street (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): ****

Watching a play rehearsal is usually the province of long-suffering stage parents showing support for their fledgling thesps. The idea of sitting on cold chairs in a darkened, dusty theater while actors in street clothes decipher their text and block out their movements isn’t a universally appealing one. But that’s the essence of Louis Malle’s 1994 swansong, Vanya on 42nd Street: watching actors informally work over the finer points of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Chekhov’s play was nearly a century old when the venerable actor/director Andre Gregory amassed a group of actors to begin privately performing Vanya (and other Chekhov works) in abandoned theater spaces around pre-Disney Times Square. Among the performers was Gregory’s My Dinner With Andre co-star, Wallace Shawn. There were no public performances; if an audience was present, they were close friends and family of the players. The experiment persisted for three years until it became clear that the spaces the troupe used would soon be renovated or razed. Gregory and Shawn approached Louis Malle (their Dinner With Andre director) and asked if he would be interested in documenting one of their final performances.

The result is more a straight-ahead performance than one would expect. The film opens with the actors converging on the streets of Manhattan (Shawn is first seen pensively consuming a street vendor’s knish) and heading into the New Amsterdam Theater, formerly home of the Ziegfield Follies. Light, pre-show banter seamlessly segues into the play itself, with Shawn lying down on a bench and suddenly slipping into his Vanya.

In Chekhov’s plays, the question “are you happy?” is often asked and the answer is invariably “no.” By the end of his plays, Chekhov’s characters are almost always beyond burnt out (or, better put, faded away). This type of miserablism is easy to satirize and hard to get right. Chekhov can be very off-putting on the page – pages and pages of unhappy people kvetching and trying to keep a stiff upper lip about their inevitable decline into irrelevance. Uncle Vanya no exception; it’s a quintessentially Chekhovian dissection of people who are disappointed in life.

Vanya (Shawn) resides on his deceased sister’s estate, dutifully keeping it up for her widower Serebryakov (George Gaynes) and his second wife, Yelena (a pre-stardom Julianne Moore). Vanya is aided by his niece Sonya (Brooke Smith). Serebryakov is a washed-up professor whose views on art Vanya formerly held in high esteem.

 

When the play opens, Serebryakov and Yelena have returned to the estate to live temporarily. Their intrusion into the clockwork affairs of Vanya and Sonya has tipped the household toward ennui, sucking otherwise industrious people into a slough of despond. At the center of this indolence is Yelena, the professor’s beautiful young wife. Both Vanya and the country doctor, Astrov (a Robards-ian Larry Pine), are smitten with Yelena and have apparently ceased to do anything other than yearn for her favor. This troubles Sonya above all others, who has her own romantic sights set on Astrov.

As the title indicates, the center of the drama hinges on these characters’ interaction with the bitter Vanya and the sweet Sonya. Uncle and niece attempt to maintain the status quo despite the combustible mixture of their provincial values with the worldly indulgences of Serebryakov and Yelena. It doesn’t take long before their attempts fail and relationships collapse. “This is not a happy home,” Yelena observes, quite unnecessarily.

Despite the construct of Malle and Gregory, it isn’t long before we forget we’re watching a performance, let alone a mere rehearsal. Aside from brief between-act breaks, the film becomes a straight reading of Chekhov’s play. The actors’ familiarity with the material shines through; Smith is particularly striking as the luckless-in-love Sonya. The actress – probably best known as The Silence of the Lambs’ girl in the well – imbues the character with a sweetness that’s equal parts strong and pathetic. Shawn is typically great and the specter of the lisping, turtle-like Shawn pawing at the gorgeous young Julianne Moore is enough reason to see this.

 

The whole exercise could easily be pretentious but, instead, the viewer gets the impression they’re witnessing something private and special, which is exactly the case. This is mostly due to the obvious joy the actors bring to their roles but it helps that the play has been very slightly updated by David Mamet, who coaxes his characteristic snappiness from Chekhov’s words.

As much as I hate to assign homework, I strongly recommend taking an hour or so and reading Chekhov’s play before watching Malle’s film. Obviously, familiarity with the text makes the actors’ achievements here all the more impressive. Some of the dustier expositional dialogue could easily turn purple in the wrong actor’s mouth but this ensemble pulls it off perfectly. The filmmakers and actors give new life to an old play about degeneration and decay.

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