Judge Jim Thomas wants to see the Quentin Tarantino version of Chekhov; Vanya doesn't miss anybody.
"We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds."
Regardless of the work, legendary stage director André Gregory has one basic goal—to remove all traces of pretense and stereotype from a performance so that for all intents and purposes, the actors are the characters. In 1990, he invited a select group of actors to have an ongoing workshop with Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, one of the more difficult works in all of theatre. Over the next several years, as schedules permitted, they came together and worked to decode the play's notoriously dense dialogue. After a few years, they decided to start giving invitation-only performances. Each of the workshop participants could invite two people a night, and the performances—which in some cases amounted to little more than a read-through—quickly became the most sought-after event in town.
One of the privileged audience members was director Louis Malle, who had worked with Gregory and participant Wallace Shawn years earlier on My Dinner with André. Malle asked if he could film the production, Gregory managed to scrounge up several hundred thousand dollars, and the film was shot in a few weeks. Criterion now brings before the court Louis Malle's last film, Vanya on 42nd Street (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
Vanya (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride) and his niece Sonia (Brooke Smith, The Silence of the Lambs) manage the estate of Serybryakov (George Gaynes, Police Academy), Sonia's father. A respected academic, Serybrykov lives in the city with his second wife, the lovely Yelena (Julianne Moore, The Hours), but lives off the income from his country estate. Life on the estate has fallen into a predictable but agreeable rhythm, but Serbrykov and Yelena have come for a visit, disrupting everyone's schedule. With their easy routines disrupted, they are forced to take stock of their lives. It's not pretty.
Chekhov's plays can be off-putting, mainly due to the archaic nineteenth century phrasing and the Russian setting. Vanya on 42nd Street finesses the first problem with a modern adaptation by David Mamet, and finesses the second by filming in the New Amsterdam Theatre. These days, the theater is home to Disney's Broadway productions, but in 1993, this classic Art Nouveau theater, once home to the Ziegfeld Follies, had been closed for almost a decade—plaster crumbling, ceiling collapsing, surrounded by porn parlors, a mere shadow of its former glory. In other words, it's a perfect metaphor for the characters' lives. Actually, it's more than that. Mamet's adaptation universalizes Chekhov's themes of wasted opportunity, so that the theater is not a reflection of Russia, but of dingy, rundown, and decrepit New York City—it's hardly a coincidence that one of the props is an "I Love NY" coffee mug. The actors couldn't even use the stage, instead performing in the orchestra pit and on stairs. In that crumbling space, the actors create magic. Wallace Shawn is an unlikely Vanya—Gregory had to work to get him to take the part—but his performance mesmerizes, developing the pathos of the character while enhancing the comic moments. He has great chemistry with the other characters, particularly Julianne Moore, who is simply luminous here, the object of every man's desire. She has some outstanding scenes with Brooke Smith, a beauty and a plain girl forging the beginnings of a friendship. If Brooke Smith's delivery of Sonia's final speech doesn't leave your soul in a puddle on the floor, you simply aren't human.
Gregory, as mentioned earlier, likes to remove all the barriers between the actors and their roles. In a recent interview in The New York Times, he says, "A groundbreaking element of [the play] being filmed was to show that Chekhov cannot be performed for a large audience because then it's being performed." That quote really tells you what the film is all about: an intimate performance of a play that requires intimacy. For his part, Malle visually reinforces the same ideas. The actors arrive in the same clothes in which they perform; Wallace Shawn complains of being tired, and lies down. Two other actors begin chatting in the corner of the screen, and they continue for some time before we realize that the play has already begun: When Shawn opens his eyes, he is Vanya. There aren't many directorly flourishes in the film, but that one is particularly effective.
Criterion has done their usual solid job cleaning up Vanya on 42nd Street. The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded high definition transfer is free of blemishes, with strong detail and rich colors (Julianne Moore's red hair and Brooke Smith's blue eyes may haunt your dreams for a time). At times darker colors tend to blur into the shadows, but not to a distracting extent. The LPCM 2.0 Audio is clean and clear—important for such a dialogue-laden work; at times the large open space in the theater causes some reverberation in the louder sequences. Sadly, the extras are criminally slight; there are two brief essays in the included booklet, and a new (2011) 35-minute making-of featurette. It's good, and includes interviews with the major participants, but that's all there is. A commentary from the cast would have been welcome, even if the commentary were limited to a couple of scenes. Commentaries by other actors who admire the piece would have been useful. Even including Joshua Redman's excellent incidental music on separate tracks would have been welcome.
Note: The film was shot with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. You should see narrow vertical bars on either side of the screen. If you have an older TV, you may have to tweak the widescreen settings to make the image display properly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even after several viewings, Larry Pine (The Shipping News) never seems to be on the same level as the other performers. That's really praising with faint damns, given the heights that the others attain; anyone even in the same ballpark is doing something right.
Chekhov isn't for everyone, even with an exceptional translation by David Mamet. It's almost all dialogue, and that won't sit well with some.
If Chekhov is your cup of tea, or if you just like the idea of watching a group of actors at the top of their game, Vanya on 42nd Street is a great disc.
Louis Malle, André Gregory, et al, are found not guilty. Criterion, on the other hand is guilty of criminally shortchanging us on the extras, and its odd setting makes it almost the textbook example of an arthouse film.
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