The performances are precise, the language is alive and well spoken and the setting is striking, but “Vanya on 42nd Street” still suffers rather heavily from the limitations of filmed theater. It’s a prestige item for the fest and arthouse circuit, and later, a strong cable, video and public TV attraction.
Reuniting with Andre Gregory 13 years after their surprise success “My Dinner With Andre,” Louis Malle has unobtrusively recorded a theater piece that Gregory and this cast rehearsed and performed, on and off, for more than four years. Working from an adaptation of Chekhov’s classic drama done by David Mamet from a literal translation, Gregory and his actors continued to explore the depths of the timeless work through periodic rehearsals, improvisations and informal performances before limited audiences at the decaying Victory Theater off Times Square.
To make the film, the company moved to the nearby New Amsterdam Theater, the former home of the “Ziegfeld Follies,” now being renovated at enormous cost by Disney. As seen here, however, the facility couldn’t be more of a wreck, an utterly dilapidated shell so dangerous they weren’t even allowed onstage, and were forced to clear a performance area in the orchestra.
As it happens, the exquisite ruin provides a clever background correlative to the play’s theme of faded splendor and lost possibilities. Initial footage of the cast arriving amidst the squalor of 42nd Street segues with beguiling seamlessness into a run-through of the play, which depicts the fraying of a landed Russian family around the turn of the century.
Wallace Shawn is the 47-year-old Vanya, who declares, “I’ve squandered my past on nonsense,” and vainly pursues the affections of the beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore), who is faithfully married to aging scientist and writer Serybryakov (George Gaynes). Latter’s daughter by his first marriage, Sonya (Brooke Smith), pines for a frequent visitor to the estate, Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), while other members of the family and staff have their say about the unhappy goings-on at key moments along the way.
Mamet’s dialogue, while not as modern as that of his own plays, spills nicely out of the mouths of these actors, all of whom seem very at home with their characters. Students of the theater and acting will find plenty to absorb them here, while Chekhov purists will no doubt take exception to certain abridgements and liberties with the text.
But more casually interested viewers may find this simply too dry an exercise , too much a staged piece and not enough of a movie.
Less mannered than usual, Shawn is a convincingly self-loathing Vanya, and Moore is a vibrant Yelena, full of laughter and assured self-justification. Gaynes impressively brings equal measures of egotism, impatience and decay to bear on his Serybryakov, Pine proves a very appealing Astrov, and Smith provides the piece with its most poignant moments as Sonya.
Shot in two weeks last May, film looks and sounds good, although Declan Quinn’s very mobile camerawork displays some curious wavering at times.