Director: Andre Gregory
Anton Chekhov (play)
David Mamet (translation)
Andre Gregory (screenplay)
Release Date: 1994
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore
Under the direction of Andre Gregory, a handful of actors met over the course of a few years to intimately study the work of Anton Chekhov, rehearsing scenes in private or for small, invite-only audiences. No scenery, no costumes. When Gregory decided to film the scenes, the project became more than the sum of its humble parts: A combination of Gregory's directing, Louis Malle’s cinematography, and a handful of actors’ combined thoughts and talents, Vanya on 42nd Street stands at once as an illuminating production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and an intriguing experiment into the nature of filming theatrical productions. These elements combine into the presentation of a reading of Chekhov’s masterpiece that is concerned primarily with the underlying desires and repressed emotions of the characters involved. In a sense, it’s a study of what happens when the walls placed between people to keep hidden feelings secret form cracks, eventually overflowing.
The New Amsterdam Theater itself is a quiet reflection of the play’s themes, its name bearing a connotation of fame and prestige, now falling apart at the seams. Andre Gregory remarks that they’re basically squatting there because the building is no longer suitable for use, and nets hang from the ceiling like spider webs to catch the pieces of drywall that break apart when the rain seeps in, somewhat eerily resonating Chekhov’s use of weather as a subtle (or at times blatant) backdrop for different scenes in the text. One of Gregory’s audience members remarks that everything is “crumbling yet beautiful,” a strangely poetic observation that carries over into the text as smoothly as the setting does. Mimicking David Mamet’s rather direct translation, Louis Malle and the company actors make no efforts to set the geographical place of the play. They’re able to remain true to Chekhov’s intentions while interpreting the flow of the play in such a way as to transcend Russia altogether. Russian cities are mentioned, money is spoken of in terms of rubles, and vodka is ever-present, yet, the actors sip coffee from paper cups and when Vanya prepares a cup of water in Act III, pushing aside one of his roses to do so, that cup has “I Love NY” printed on the side of it, very directly facing the camera. The end result is a play that floats between time periods and localities, lending itself naturally to any time and place, distilled down to the bare essence of Chekhov’s words rather than being mired down in the technicalities surrounding issues of place. Things are beautiful, in a way, but they’re still falling apart slowly but surely, and as time progresses the cracks in the structure of both The New Amsterdam Theater and this one circle of family and friends will become more and more pronounced.
When our eyes would undoubtedly be drawn towards Julianne Moore’s face, Malle gives us a close-up, elegantly capturing that picture with a degree of detail we couldn’t otherwise see. It’s almost as if the viewer is given the gift of super sight, if only for two hours, and no shot draws attention to itself through unnecessary camera movements or awkward angles. Just as the words flow naturally from the mouths of the actors, so the camera catches them and hangs onto them unblinkingly. Even in moments of striking conflict, when characters are moving and yelling, the camera remains steady. It is our eyes, our fixed gaze, caught up in the moment of action. In Act III, when Sonya discovers that Astrov doesn’t love her, despite the other events in the room, the camera sticks with Sonya, who remains unmoving, statuesque, her face both blank from being so overwhelmed and yet utterly loaded with heartbreak. She has no lines. She doesn’t move. And, yet, the mere presence of her unmasked hurt on stage captivates the camera.
Julianne Moore’s Yelena remains gorgeous and aloof, a quintessential trait of any reading of the character, yet her facial expressions and body language speak as loudly as her words (and, in many cases, silences.) Her sensuality is quietly stressed to a degree subtle enough to float in the back of the mind without overriding the purity of the character — the first shot of Julianne Moore herself, before the play even begins, has a red neon sign for a lingerie store glowing vibrantly over her head, planting the seeds of a connection between the character and sexuality. Similarly, her scene with Serebryakov in the opening of Act II is intriguingly sexualized. In the text, she responds to his remark that he repulses her by sitting further away from him. In this interpretation, however, they nervously laugh it off, then kiss, and she straddles him in his chair, cradling him against her chest. This is a striking contrast to the Yelena we might see in other productions, a beauty that floats above the cast. This Yelena is human and passionate, even if that passion only boils to the surface in fits and starts. Similarly, her interaction in the end of Act I with Vanya takes on a vivid new life when actually played out by real characters. Taking the text alone, his words of love towards her and her perpetual deflections of them are tense to the point that Chekhov chose to end Act I with them, a culmination of the play up until that point. In this film, however, the greatest tension comes not from the words themselves but from the body language of Moore and Shawn, who sit as close as lovers, looking into each other’s eyes throughout their argument, smiles playing upon both faces. There are instances, several of them, in which one can’t help but wait for Vanya to move in for the kiss that seems so frustratingly inevitable, but which never comes. Her body language seems to egg on Vanya and even Astrov, inviting closeness and yet not shying away from touch. Her words indicate a level of boredom with her life that radiates sadness, a stifling apathy towards who she is and what her existence has become. She wonders “how they’ll get through the winter” in that home, and when it becomes too much to bear as the play goes on, she opts simply to flee the home. She begs to move away, and does so.
Wallace Shawn’s portrayal of Vanya is understandably controversial. His pitiful nature is almost endearing, his mannerisms eccentric, and his tone whiny. He’s almost too passive to be the hero of a Chekhovian play, right down to the lisp and the tendency to murmur or laugh lightly during the delivery of certain lines that can run the risk of undercutting the serious weight of the words. His promise to bring Yelena “sad autumn flowers” comes early in Act III, an act that opens with Vanya pretending to be an animal of some sort, roaring comically from off camera. The same line is flanked with another animal impression from Vanya, pretending to be an adoring puppy begging for forgiveness. He’s amusing, if not downright hilarious, but somehow Shawn manages to pull it off by unmasking the Vanya that lays below his lovable (even if painfully cynical) exterior — a Vanya that is bitterly coursing with the thought that his life has been ruined by forces beyond his control. Such a strikingly serious sentimentality holds enormous weight for a character, and Shawn’s Vanya lets this bubble to the surface in times of conflict, giving in to outbursts in each act, such as his argument with his own mother or the final conflict with Serebryakov. He alludes to having these feelings of resentment as early as his first appearance in Act I, speaking primarily to Astrov, and in light of this aspect of the character every line that Shawn speaks is eerily laced with the seeds of discontentment. In Chekhov’s text, Elena remarks in Act I that it’s “a fine day today…not too hot,” to which Vanya replies that it’s a fine day to hang one’s self. In the text, these words are all but lost in the din that immediately follows a line later, between the sudden reintroduction of Telyegin’s guitar and Marina’s calling for the chickens. This lends the words a direct, heavy tone that isn’t found in Vanya on 42nd Street. Rather, Shawn’s Vanya phrases his reply as a joke, going so far as to mime hanging one’s self, drawing laughs out of the participants in what was formerly a tense conversation. And while, on the surface, the tension seems to have been broken with this singular absurd statement, there is an even stronger lingering thought: that, very simply, Vanya means every word he’s saying.
Larry Pine’s portrayal of Astrov is just as stirring, bringing to life a man who is at once full of life and ideas, who speaks eloquently and in idealistic terms, and yet harbors both an alcohol problem and a stubborn hatred for his own life. Perhaps it’s his friendly face or the casual air of his words, but something about Larry Pine is immediately likeable, and so too is Astrov. If Vanya’s pent-up emotions burst forth in Act III, it’s fitting that his friend and confidant does so in Act II, and even more fitting that he does it under the influence of the vodka that he drinks throughout the play. As with every major character in the play, Astrov has repressed sentimentalities that he fights to keep in check and which ultimately don’t work out for him. His views on nature and the future of humanity stem from a larger idea of humanity as a destructive force rather than a cultivative one, and when he’s explaining these things to the other characters, Pine looks more alive than any other time in the film. His interaction with Yelena in Act II marks the culmination of his character’s emotional arc — he believes his love is returned, rather unrelentingly urges her to admit it and meet him, then forces a kiss upon her. She rejects him, and he is removed from the picture, another character whose more passionate feelings have risen to the surface, only to end poorly.
Even more minor characters fit smoothly into the performance. The professor himself is cold from the first moment that he ignores the other characters on his way inside, and remains absent for most of the play. This is fitting, given his absence in the lives of Vanya and Sonya to begin with, and in the scenes that feature him he only perpetuates conflict. Sonya is hardly the centerpiece of the play, but is nonetheless present. Brooke Smith approaches her from a reserved angle, leaving her originally a bit quiet and short, with a perpetual look of cynicism on her face reminiscent of Vanya’s, a poignant touch given their closeness over the years and the hardships they’ve shared. Still, as her love for Astrov becomes a larger concern in Act II, her quiet mannerisms are dropped and she becomes downright giddy, laughing and fawning over him with Yelena. Of course, she too is disappointed, and in the end offers the final bit of dialogue that brings the entire play full-circle.
Sonya’s final speech gives words to what has up until now been quantified only through bits and pieces of conversation. She recognizes that this life has denied all of them what they’ve wanted, that despite their best efforts their desires have gone unheeded and will continue to do so. The only thing to do, then, is to continue living, day to day, with the distant hope that somewhere down the road it will all turn out for the best, even if it’s after death.
Chekhov, Anton. "Uncle Vanya." The Major Plays. Trans. Ann Dunnigan. New York: New American Library, 1964.
Vanya on 42nd Street. Dir. Louis Malle. Videocassette. 1995.