Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Film #114: Vanya on 42nd Street

It's Anton Chekov's naked sadness that finally makes Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street so superlative. However, the trouble with doing the play on film is that with the excitement of a live performance absent, the picture might seem dull to audience members who aren't in step with this pure-bred brand of Russian fatalism. That's why Malle's choice to record one of Andre Gregory's many private-audience-only run-throughs of the play is so assuredly inspired.

In a way, this is a documentary, because, indeed, for a few years in the early 90s, Gregory staged private showings of the play--done simply for the benefit of the artists involved--in the then-run-down 7th Ave/42nd Street Amsterdam Theater (now, of course, owned by Disney and the home of the stage versions of The Lion King and Mary Poppins). Gregory's troupe performed in their street clothes (we see them all arriving at the theater behind the film's opening credits). They perform on a sparse stage, with only the most basic of set dressings and props (like the occasional "I Love NY" coffee cup, for instance). According to the Wikipedia entry for the film "At the time Vanya on 42nd Street was filmed, the theatre had been abandoned for over ten years and was in a state of severe disrepair. Rats had chewed through much of the stage rigging, thus making the stage unusable. For the film production, some rows of seats were removed and a small platform was built for the cast and film crew." Nets were ever set up to catch any falling plaster! Now, thanks to Disney, this great theater--once a Ziegfeld holding--is back up to snuff. But, thanks to Malle, we still get to see its once decaying beauty, too.

The casting here is superlative. Wallace Shawn, a well-loved character actor in a rare lead, is reunited with his My Dinner With Andre team (that's another movie I like!). Now, under the shared direction of Gregory and Malle, he blossoms fully as the perpetually unhappy, unloved Vanya, living in the home of his brother, the respected Professor Serebryakov (George Gaines). Vanya now despises the professor (whom he once idolized), but sticks around because he's in love with his young wife Yalena (Julianne Moore), who continually dismisses Vanya's desire. Meanwhile, the homely Sonya (Brooke Smith) is in love with the alcoholic country doctor Astrov (Larry Pine), who never notices her because he's too carried away by Yalena's beauty.

With this cast in control, Chekov's language becomes almost contemporary, and even the most inattentive person can become wrapped up in the story's raw emotions (David Mamet provides the translation of the play's text, and the movie almost never strays from it). Shawn is a mess of nerves, wonderfully whiny and shattered by his wasted youth. Moore is resplendent and completely believable as a lady who knows not what her beauty does to those around her. And Brooke Smith forever has a place on my radar for her incredible showing as the disappointed but always hopeful Sonya; wherever Smith shows up, whether in a small role in things like Trees Lounge or in larger ones in movies like the brilliant reality show spoof Series 7: The Contenders, I'm there (she's now a regular as Dr. Erica Hahn on TV's Grey's Anatomy). Vanya on 42nd Street goes down as not only a journey into the bleak winter of Chekov's soul, but also as a steadfast tribute to the dedication of actors like these.

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