Vanya on 42nd Street

This 1994 film captures an alchemical moment of New York theatre lore, a prolonged experiment in Chekhov

DVD Watch

Vanya on 42nd Street

Criterion Collection, $29.95

In 1989, theatre director Andre Gregory amassed a superlative group of stage actors to take part in a multiyear workshop of Anton Chekhov's 1897 play, Uncle Vanya. It was a prolonged experiment in the creative process, not at all performance-driven, although the anti-production, staged in an abandoned theatre, was eventually opened up to invitation-only audiences numbering 20 at a time. The story might have ended there, just an alchemical moment of New York theatre lore, had Gregory not approached his My Dinner With Andre director Louis Malle, who then went about making, paradoxically, a fixed document of a shape-shifting enterprise founded on the principles of spontaneity and impermanence. It's a stunner.

Set in the crumbling, condemned New Amsterdam in Manhattan's theatre district, Vanya on 42nd Street immediately calls into question assumptions about the real versus the unreal. Malle films the actors – including Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, and Larry Pine – on the streets of New York, in plain clothes and headed to rehearsal. Real, right? Not so fast; as Steven Vineberg points out in his essay "An American Vanya" (included in the Criterion Collection's new release), the actors are already wearing their characters' temperaments, as when Pine, who will play the fevered environmentalist and spurned lover Dr. Astrov, breathes in the air and a barely clad streetwalker. The actors gather, exchange pleasantries with the audience (including Oren Moverman, a then-production intern who became a writer/director; incidentally, his latest, Rampart, opens in Austin this Friday). Seamlessly, with no fanfare, the actors slide into the script.

And what a devastating, breath-catching script it is, from the still so modern-minded Chekhov (the adaptation is by David Mamet). Filmed in medium shots and close-ups, the action feels as near as if we were seated at the same table as Vanya, the embittered estate manager. Indeed, at an act break, the camera reveals the "audience" really is seated at the same table as the actors. (The soft-spoken Gregory, a sort of beanpole Buddha, provides stage direction between acts.) The intimate framing is a perfect match for this domestic drama about a braggart professor (George Gaynes) who retires to his first wife's country estate with his second, much younger wife, Yelena (Moore, luminous). Their arrival upends the house's calming routine and productivity. His creative stagnation and her boredom are catching; that, coupled with a near epidemic of lovesickness, prompts Yelena to observe, in the understatement of Chekhov's century and the next: "This is not a happy home." Which isn't to say that the play can't be startlingly funny, too – Shawn brines his Uncle Vanya in sarcasm, then rinses with manic bursts of playfulness – but the takeaway here is the eternal lament of the unloved and the underappreciated, trudging toward death's promise of solace. Gutting stuff.

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Vanya on 42nd Street, Uncle Vanya, Andre Gregory, Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Oren Moverman, Anton Chekhov

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