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In the long history of stage-to-screen translations, there’s never been anything quite like Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), an astonishing hybrid blurring the boundaries between theater and film, rehearsal and performance, actor and character. The production began in 1989, as an extended workshop under the guidance of André Gregory, perhaps the most gifted stage director in America, who assembled a superb cast of actors to rehearse Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the abandoned Victory Theater on Forty-second Street. They met, over the course of more than four years, whenever their professional schedules allowed, without any plan to perform before an audience. But toward the end of that period, they began to invite friends to watch the rehearsals. Eventually, Gregory asked Malle to film the play, performed by the actors in street clothes, with bare-bones furniture and rehearsal props, and they installed themselves in the magnificently decrepit New Amsterdam Theatre across the street, unused for decades, its stage rendered impracticable by flooding and mice, so that they were restricted to a section of what had been the orchestra.
Malle’s long career, which began in 1956, when he codirected Jacques Cousteau’s undersea documentary The Silent World, flowered during the French New Wave, and eventually occupied simultaneous spheres in France and in Hollywood, includes no other dramatic adaptations. Still, Vanya wasn’t entirely new territory for him. In 1981, he directed Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn (who plays Vanya) in the one-of-a-kind film My Dinner with André, written by Shawn, in which the two men philosophize over dinner at a restaurant about theater and their lives. It isn’t a documentary: Shawn culled the conversation, which is heady and eccentric and as witty as the dialogue in a high comedy, from a series of discussions between him and Gregory, but it’s no less carefully shaped than any of Shawn’s stage works, and the two stars are playing fully conceived characters, “Wally” and “André.” This little charmer of a picture comes to mind most vividly in the opening sequence of Vanya, where the actors stroll through midtown on their way to the New Amsterdam, exchange pleasantries, and introduce the friends and relatives they’ve brought to the day’s run-through—the visiting niece of Phoebe Brand (who plays Marina, the nanny) and Shawn’s friend Mrs. Chao and a young acquaintance of hers, Flip. Like My Dinner with André, this section looks like a documentary but isn’t. (Mrs. Chao is actually played by the famous Indian chef and cookbook writer, and actor, Madhur Jaffrey, and her friend is the soon-to-be film writer and director Oren Moverman.)
In other ways, too, Malle was the ideal director for the project, which strips down Chekhov’s late-nineteenth-century story about Russian intellectuals in the provinces and reimagines it as a text for Stanislavski-trained American actors. (David Mamet’s adaptation, based on a literal translation by Vlada Chernomordik, moves Chekhov’s dialogue as close as possible to American rhythms without sacrificing the often poetic self-consciousness of the characters’ speeches.) Not only was Malle a superb actor’s director but he also ferried back and forth throughout his professional life between fiction films and documentaries and was fascinated with the idea of softening the line between them. In A Very Private Affair (1962), for instance, he cast Brigitte Bardot in a role clearly inspired by her real-life persona, and the young man he chose to play the lead in Lacombe, Lucien (1974), the story of a peasant who joins the Gestapo during the occupation because he can’t get into the Resistance, was a woodcutter named Pierre Blaise, with no previous acting experience. Both Chekhov and Constantin Stanislavski, who directed Chekhov’s plays at the Moscow Art Theatre, hated the European theater of their time for its fakery and its tendency to showcase stars; they believed in an ensemble ethic, and Chekhov wrote scenes that can be played only with the kind of psychological realism Stanislavski trained his actors to achieve. Though audiences would certainly recognize some of the faces in Vanya on 42nd Street, only Julianne Moore (as Yelena) has had a movie star’s trajectory, and in 1994 she was just beginning to land leading roles. Gregory has a way of working with an ensemble that is strikingly at odds with the quick-pick-up approach of professional theater in the United States; you’d have to travel as far as France’s Théâtre du Soleil to find another company that takes years to cultivate a production. His aim is to permit the actors to peel open the play, layer by layer, and locate the more deeply embedded and surprising elements in their characters. An elusive truth was also what Malle was after in Lacombe, Lucien with Blaise and his then equally inexperienced costar, Aurore Clément, though he approached it via a different avenue. It’s easy to imagine Malle’s being immediately sympathetic to Gregory’s project.
Chekhov wasn’t alone among the great modernist playwrights in questioning the presumptions of theatrical realism. A couple of decades after Uncle Vanya, Luigi Pirandello confronted the issues of realism in Six Characters in Search of an Author, and in some ways Vanya on 42nd Street suggests, especially in the opening, a reverse-Pirandellian take on Chekhov’s masterpiece. Pirandello’s play queries the basic theatrical notion that actors on a stage can take on the mantle of someone else’s reality without turning it artificial; Gregory and Malle accept this challenge to realism by showing us that great actors who have burrowed deep inside their roles can shift into them with such ease that you don’t notice the transformation until you’re already caught up in it. This is the Stanislavskian ideal, accomplished when actors draw on their own experience to furnish the emotional core of their characters. Shawn, wandering through the playing area at the New Amsterdam with Mrs. Chao, confides that he’s exhausted because he hasn’t slept well for several nights, and he lies down on a bench to rest; Larry Pine chats with Brand (an original member of the Group Theatre, where Stanislavskian acting was first practiced in America in the 1930s) about how overcommitted he is, rehearsing several plays simultaneously. Without warning and without missing a beat, their conversation becomes the opening exchange of Uncle Vanya, between Dr. Astrov and Marina, and only after we realize this, a moment or two late, do we see that Shawn has already slipped into the character of Vanya, dozing nearby. It takes two (or perhaps three) viewings to understand that Malle has prepared us for this metamorphosis even earlier: What seems like a throwaway credit sequence, with the actors on the street, is already pairing them with their characters. George Gaynes, who will play the haughty, self-pitying, out-of-touch professor, Serebryakov, looks like an old-world gentleman out for a stroll, dressed impeccably in an overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat; when he makes his first-act entrance a few minutes later, he’s still sporting the hat and wears his coat over his shoulders like a cape. Pine, who as Astrov falls in love with the professor’s wife, Yelena, and tries to tempt her into an affair, strolls through the theater district, turning to admire a shapely young woman as she passes. Moore and Brooke Smith (as Yelena’s stepdaughter, Sonya) arrive together, chattering enthusiastically—anticipating the girlish relationship that will spring up between their characters, after a period of iciness, at the end of act 2. Shawn stands by a vendor’s stall, munching contemplatively on a knish, an image that seems oddly right for a latter-day Vanya, that combination of failed intellectual, disappointed sensualist, and tragic clown. Lynn Cohen, who plays Vanya’s mother, Maman, the professor’s most devoted reader, exudes a distinctly New York bohemian elegance as she strides down the street with her bag swinging from her shoulder. When they arrive at the theater, Brand and Jerry Mayer (who plays the estate hanger-on, Waffles) are already there to greet them, just as their characters are continually in attendance at the estate where Vanya and Sonya live year-round and Serebryakov and Yelena have just arrived on an extended summer visit.
The pared-down setting and the rehearsal props are reminiscent of Our Town, but Thornton Wilder used those devices to keep the audience aware that they were watching a play; Gregory and Malle use them, paradoxically, to show how little the details of setting matter when the details of character are worked through and profoundly right. At some point in the first act, we stop noticing that we’re not watching a fully designed production—or if the thought does occur to us now and then, it’s as an emissary from the real world pinching us to remind us that this is a movie of a rehearsal of a play, before we forget again and are swept up in the emotional turmoil of the characters’ lives. The key item in the movie for exploring this notion is the “I New York” coffee cup on the dining room table, an anachronism that becomes merely part of the fabric of the setting, imbued like everything else with the indolent, unsettled atmosphere of this Russian country estate. This interaction of late-twentieth-century New York actors with a turn-of-the-century Russian text acknowledges both and celebrates the tension between them as well as the overlap. That’s why the music we hear behind the opening and end credits isn’t, say, a balalaika melody but a marvelous jazz score by Joshua Redman. The point is that Uncle Vanya speaks as powerfully to contemporary Americans as it did to Russians at the sunset of the age of the czars. The magnificence of the performers, perhaps the most extraordinary group of actors ever gathered to bring Chekhov’s play to life, confirms it.
Vanya on 42nd Street turned out to be Malle’s final film. His output was so varied that it doesn’t seem particularly strange that his swan song is so unlike the Renoiresque French movies he is best known for: Murmur of the Heart (1972); Lacombe, Lucien; Au revoir les enfants (1987). Of course, he made many pictures in America too, and his editing rhythms in Vanya are as precisely attuned to the relaxed, colloquial styles of the cast as Mamet’s language rhythms. The film is a triumphant cross-hatching of talents—Gregory’s and Malle’s, Chekhov’s and Mamet’s, and the actors’, whose poignant intimacy as a true Stanislavskian ensemble takes us straight to the heart of Chekhov’s vision of how human beings can interact on a stage (or on-screen) when there’s no theatrical self-consciousness to get in the way.
Steven Vineberg is the author of Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies. He teaches theater and film at College of the Holy Cross, where he is a Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities.