In the Age of Jackie Collins, Anton Chekhov is not the first name that springs to mind when the prof starts talking lit. The Schwarzenegger crowd hasn't read Chekhov in years, and no one pays 65 bucks a ticket anymore to see his stuff on Broadway.
Thank goodness, then, for Andre Gregory, Louis Malle, David Mamet and a plucky group of New York stage actors. They believe not only that Chekhov is the father of modern drama but also that his dark visions of provincial life in nineteenth-century Russia have more than a little to say about how we live right now in America.
What we see on the screen as Vanya on 42nd Street is a collision of several near-miracles. We begin, of course, with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1899), that durable study of hopelessness in people who have exhausted themselves in the service of a wrongheaded ideal. With its foreshadowings of Beckett and Sartre, it remains an astonishingly contemporary play, and playwright David Mamet's vigorous cut-and-polish job makes it even more so. But Vanya never would have developed into this extraordinary film if quirky stage director Andre Gregory and a group of actors including Wallace Shawn (Vanya), Julianne Moore (Yelena), Brooke Smith (Sonya) and Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov) had not, back in 1989, began performing the play--for themselves, for friends, sometimes for strangers off the street--in living rooms and rented performance spaces.
In 1991 French film director Louis Malle was moved by one of the Vanya run-throughs and lamented that this resolutely noncommercial production could not be seen by wider audiences.
Voila. Malle's highly theatrical film, by way of Mamet's adaptation and Gregory's production-in-progress, took place in the old New Amsterdam Theatre on Times Square, a stately wreck that was once home to the Ziegfeld Follies. As this slightly modernized Vanya unfolds, honking horns and police sirens cut into the drama from the street beyond, and the tenor saxophone of young jazzman Joshua Redman now and then underscores the fact that we are perched on two planes of reality--Russia in the last days of the czars and teeming America in the waning years of the twentieth century.
It's no surprise that Chekhov's great work has the capacity to bridge the gap. Shawn's fussing, fuming Vanya has discovered that the long years he's spent managing the estate of his brother-in-law, Serebryakov, have been wasted. As a scholar, Serebryakov is a crank and a fraud. As a man, he is worse.
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Our own age has no lack of cranks and frauds, of course, and the classic Chekhovian complication of three overlapping love triangles hardly feels dated, either. The old professor's beautiful second wife, Yelena (Moore) captivates both Vanya, who harbors "a vicious fury at the life I've let slip away from me," and Dr. Astrov (Pine), whose dedication to the sick and to, yes, local reforestation projects has given way to disenchantment and dissolution. Brooke Smith's Sonya, who yearns hopelessly for the doctor, completes this unhappy chain of unrequited love, social stagnation and ill-founded optimism.
The ghosts roaming the old theater, the dusty, dramatic lighting and Redman's cool jazz score combine with the dark grandeur of Chekhov to produce a vivid theatrical effect. Gregory and Malle have not only transplanted Uncle Vanya to contemporary times, they have revivified the great writer's entire world--a world in which elaborate dreams of love and prosperity are dashed by harsh reality and the conventional wisdom of nineteenth-century Russia is about to be put asunder by a revolution the landed gentry can scarcely imagine.
It is a society on the edge of the abyss, steeped in pathos, disillusionment and botched attempts to communicate. Malle and Gregory render it even more striking by seeming to project the play into the lives of the players and to fuse the two eras: In one memorable scene, the actors are "backstage" discussing the minor annoyances of the day in Manhattan; suddenly, we are startled to discover that Uncle Vanya has resumed.
For life on Anton Chekhov's stage is still all of a piece, even as it lies in pieces.