Squalid Times Square Was Perfect Set for ‘Vanya’: DVD

'Vanya on 42nd Street'
Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore as Vanya and Yelena in Louis Malle's 1994 film "Vanya on 42nd Street." The movie is a modern adaptation of the famed Andre Gregory production of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." Source: Criterion Collection via Bloomberg

New Yorkers can currently see fine, radically different approaches to Anton Chekhov’s masterwork, “Uncle Vanya.”

Downtown, Soho Rep is offering a chamber version in its intimate theater. At New York City Center, the Lincoln Center Festival has brought in a comparatively sumptuous staging starring Cate Blanchett.

For emotional impact, not to mention sheer audacity, they’ll have to compete with “Vanya on 42nd Street,” Louis Malle’s incomparable film from nearly two decades ago. It’s now out on a restored DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion.

Malle’s adaptation of stage director Andre Gregory’s production takes place almost entirely within a single, dilapidated section of the orchestra in what was, at the time, the crumbling, abandoned New Amsterdam theater.

In its magisterial heyday, this theater housed the “Ziegfeld Follies” and the New Amsterdam Roof Garden. Shortly after Malle finished shooting, Disney began restoring the theater for its own productions.

Dumb Question

When “Vanya on 42nd Street” came out in 1994, it was greeted in some quarters with that tired old refrain: “But is it a movie?”

Whatever you care to call it, it’s a treasure.

When it comes to showcasing the expressivity of its actors, there has rarely been a movie as “cinematic” as this.

Gregory, raised in America by Russian parents, dispenses with the usual samovar-and-sunset approach and goes straight for the play’s emotional essence. Malle’s camera is always where you want it to be: on the faces of the extraordinary cast members, all of whom perform in street clothes this comic tragedy of bourgeois woe.

They include Wallace Shawn as the ineffably dyspeptic Vanya and Julianne Moore as the beautiful young Yelena, who is married to the blowhard writer Serybryakov (George Gaynes) at least twice her age. Brooke Smith is Sonya, Vanya’s lovesick niece and Serybryakov’s daughter. Larry Pine all but steals the film as the cynical, boozy Astrov, the local doctor who has unwittingly won Sonya’s heart while lusting after Yelena.

Pulverizing Immediacy

As I was recently reminded of while watching the Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the things I miss when I go to the movies is the pulverizing immediacy of a great live performance. “Vanya on 42nd Street” bridges that gap: It’s a movie with all the intensity of live theater.

That intensity was hard won. As is his method, Gregory rehearsed the actors on and off, beginning in 1989, over a period of four years. The intention was never to mount the play for an audience. Gregory wanted to do it for the love of it, and because he imagined how good his cohort Shawn, with whom he collaborated on the 1981 Malle-directed “My Dinner With Andre,” would be in the title role.

Using a fresh, contemporary adaptation by playwright David Mamet, the actors began with, as Shawn explains in a documentary extra, the notion that they would “explore a piece of writing” for just a few weeks.

After years of rehearsals, word of the production got around and the cast was coaxed by Gregory into appearing before a select audience of friends and colleagues, usually no more than about 20 at a time. Attendees included Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, (who saw it twice and cried each time) and Susan Sontag.

Lynne Cohen, who plays the elderly Maman, speaks in the documentary about how Gregory’s process “gently let this play invade our souls.”

Moore’s Change

Moore, who at the time of the filming was just becoming recognized in movies (“The Fugitive,” “Short Cuts”), talks about how the experience changed her approach to everything. She learned that “you can have an emotion on camera. I want the surprise of feeling like it’s actually happening to me.”

Gregory explains his approach in the documentary.

“Chekhov is not about candelabras and costumes,” he says. “It’s not even about relationships primarily and it’s certainly not about plot.

“What Chekhov is about fundamentally is the nature of the quality of passing your life -- what it feels like to be here as we travel across the ocean of life.”

Smith tearfully recounts how, when the cast walked out of the theater for the last time, Malle (who died the year after the film was released), stopped everyone and said, “Let’s just take a moment. This is gone.”

That’s all very Chekhovian, but the fortunate truth is, with “Vanya on 42nd Street,” the experience is preserved forever.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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