Vanya for the 21st century

There is perhaps no better place to film a Chekhov play, especially a postmodern adaptation of Uncle Vanya, than in an extravagantly distressed Broadway theater.

The New Amsterdam theater on 42nd Street, home of the Ziegfeld Follies and an erstwhile porn house, is perfect for the part: dangerous and abandoned, the dusty venue is haunted by its youthful promise while glittering in opulent decay. (Bas relief golden peacocks are still embedded across the proscenium arch, yet the stage itself is condemned.)

The intimate cast of Vanya on 42nd Street--a theatrical event directed by Andre Gregory, which has been turned into a film by Louis Malle--treats a makeshift platform stage at the New Amsterdam as if it were home, a stagnating, oppressive, Chekhovian home. In two weeks last spring, Malle and director of photography Declan Quinn (brother of Aidan Quinn) shot the group as they lived inside the skins of their characters, something they had learned to do quite well after some four years of rehearsal.

And there is perhaps no better actor to play Vanya than Wallace Shawn, who puts in a remarkably gutsy, wrenching, and exasperating performance as the resentful, depressed, and lovesick uncle. It would be so easy for his portrayal to become an unrelenting, unsympathetic drag. But Shawn makes Vanya funny and wild, a raging bull inside a submissive, tired body.

Shawn seems like he has stored up every bit of resentment he may have for this role--including any unhappiness the talented thespian feels about his frequent exploitation as a character actor. He so often seems cast for his strange and comic looks alone; he has had few chances at such range and heft, at least on the screen.

In Vanya, Shawn's character feels bilked because he has spent the past 25 years supporting his brother-in-law, Serybryakov. Played by George Gaynes, Serybryakov is an aging, disheveled, and hypochondriac arts scholar who has little to do these days but pontificate and fear death. Vanya's sister is long dead, and Serybryakov, aka Aleksandr, has returned to the estate with his young, breathtakingly beautiful second wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore).

Vanya has worked his fingers to the bone running the estate with Aleksandr's daughter, Sonya (Brooke Smith). The professor's return turns their lives upside down and drives home to Vanya the fact that he has been devoted to a lazy intellectual who has no new ideas and little to show for his exciting life among the intelligentsia.

It's amazing what four years of rehearsal can do. Each and every performance in Vanya on 42nd Street reminds me of a piece of ripe fruit, almost overripe, so close to bitter. But it's not. It's perfect.

The film audience is introduced to some talented lesser-knowns from the stage world: Smith as Sonya, Vanya's soulmate; Lynn Cohen as Maman; and Larry Pine as Dr. Astrov. Astrov, Aleksandr's doctor, is Chekhov's vehicle for discussing the "gradual and relentless decay of the land, the decimation of the forest," and man as destroyer. Pine as Astrov is captivating as a man who has toiled for the regeneration of the earth, yet is caught in his own web of self-destruction.

One of those most fascinating aspects of Vanya is how the entire estate is transfixed by Yelena and Aleksandr's visitation. No one can do any work any more. Each of them hovers over the important guests in an infectiously laconic haze. Uncharacteristically, they stay up all night. They drink. They reflect on their laborious, decaying lives. They are restless but can no longer function in the day-to-day.

And all the men pine for Yelena, Aleksandr's young wife. Moore is a most incredible beauty--translucent skin, copper hair, and blue eyes--and she portrays Yelena as a woman on the edge of discretion. The most touching relationship in this Vanya is that between Sonya and Yelena. The two begin as enemies and slowly emerge as confidantes. Gregory and Malle capitalize on these elements. They are the moments of trust and affection that make life worth living despite the inevitable betrayals, decay, even ruin. (For a younger audience, these moments keep Vanya from seeming like a generation of mid-life Russians in need of antidepressants.)

The filmed play's genesis is what you might expect of a collaboration between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory--an intense, never-ending labor of love. The unexpected kick is that David Mamet wrote the adaptation, a saucy, get-to-the-point interpretation that is easy and engaging for the modern viewer.

Gregory and Shawn never expected more than a select few Manhattanites would see this version of Uncle Vanya. Like Shawn's work The Fever, which was recently performed at Addison Centre Theatre's Stone Cottage, Vanya was performed as a work in progress for small groups of friends and colleagues. Louis Malle was one of those friends, and so eventually the project became much bigger. The film is a rare opportunity for those of us outside New York to see its most invigorating theater, as opposed to the usual touring fare.

Vanya on 42nd Street does what Richard Hamburger of the Dallas Theater Center almost achieved with The Cherry Orchard during last year's season: make Chekhov vivid and relevant to a contemporary audience. Of course Hamburger didn't have a Mamet translation, and in many ways, his Orchard delivered that deep, seeping, restless anxiety that signifies successful Chekhov.

But this Vanya goes so much further, losing the stilted 19th-century language and the stifled attic air of some written translations. The actors wear their own, comfortable clothing, and the action takes place around a few tables and benches in a low-key set created by designer Eugene Lee (Sweeney Todd, Showboat).

Vanya, the film, is still theater. It can be viewed as an enhanced documentation of Gregory's hip take on the Russian master and takes careful viewing to see what Malle and Quinn bring to the table besides close-ups and panoramic views of the New Amsterdam. (The intermission, complete with finger food and cocktail conversation, is filmed, as are Gregory's comments as he moves the small audience after the first act.)

I have not seen Gregory's Vanya as live theater, but I suspect Malle has made the production even more intimate in his film. His affectionate attention to faces, hands, and small details like the vodka bottle or the I Love New York paper cups make the experience raw, personal, and oddly touching.

For more information on Vanya on 42nd Street, call the Inwood Theatre at 352-6040.

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Nora Fitzgerald