Vanya on 42nd Street

Vanya on 42nd Street
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: André Gregory (based on the play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted by David Mamet)
Stars: Phoebe Brand (Nanny), Lynn Cohen (Maman), George Gaynes (Serybryakov), Jerry Mayer (Waffles), Julianne Moore (Yelena), Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov), Brooke Smith (Sonya), Wallace Shawn (Vanya), André Gregory (Himself), Madhur Jaffrey (Mrs. Chao)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1994
Country: U.S.
Vanya on 42nd Street Criterion Collection DVD
Vanya on 42nd StreetVanya on 42nd Street, which reunited director Louis Malle, theater director/actor André Gregory, and playwright/actor Wallace Shawn, who had collaborated a dozen years earlier on the indelible My Dinner With Andre (1981), has to be one of the most unique stage-to-screen adaptations in film history. The project started as a performance of the great Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that no one was ever supposed to see. Gregory started putting together a cast in the late 1980s, and over the years they would get together whenever everyone was free and rehearse the play in the Victory Theater in New York. Gregory intended it to be a pure exercise in theater for its own sake, meant only for the eyes and ears of those who were actually performing it. But, after several years of rehearsing Gregory began allowing the actors to invite a few people to watch them perform, and eventually they decided to commit it to film under the direction of Malle, whose last film it would turn out to be.

Vanya on 42nd Street begins with the actors on the streets of New York City as they all head toward the New Amsterdam Theatre, the then-dilapidated former home of the Ziegfeld Follies (this was right before Disney bought it and renovated it as part of the 42nd Street Renaissance). Once inside the theater, though, they become their characters, acting out the entirety of Chekhov’s play in the theater’s orchestra pit (the stage was too deteriorated to serve as a safe performance space). With Malle’s camera favoring medium shots and two shots, the background of the crumbling theater becomes an unexpectedly perfect backdrop to the play’s tale of crumbling family relations and conflicted interests. Rather than distracting from the interpersonal crises that unfold throughout the play, the otherwise incongruent environment seems to comment on it, as if the walls around the characters are literally coming down (in reality, the ceiling was so decayed that a huge net had to be strung above the actors in case pieces of it fell down).

For those not familiar with Chekhov’s late 1890s play, it unfolds entirely at a country estate that is manages by Vanya (Wallace Shawn) and Sonya (Brooke Smith), the respective brother-in-law and daughter of Serybryakov (George Gaynes), an elderly professor who lives in the city and uses the proceeds from the estate to fund his life. The estate actually comes from the professor’s deceased wife, and he treats it—and the people associated with it—like a relic from a former existence, to be used at his convenience. The professor has since remarried to a beautiful and much younger woman, Yelena (Julianne Moore), who attracts the attention of both Vanya and Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), a local doctor who is called to check up on the professor and ends up staying on. The situation is further confounded by Sonya’s unrequited pining for Dr. Astrov and the simmering tension between her and her new mother-in-law. Other characters include Nanny (Phoebe Brand), the professor’s mother-in-law, and Waffles (Jerry Mayer), a hired hand at the estate.

Much of the plot in Chekhov’s play is stitched out of fairly standard interpersonal squabbling, barely repressed resentment, and conflicting romantic interests. As adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and staged by Gregory, the familiarity of the material takes a backseat to the intensity of the performances, which had been so honed by years of rehearsals that they feel utterly natural, even as the dialogue frequently takes on an unrealistic air. Mamet keeps much of the formality one would expect from the great Russian playwright, but he infuses it at crucial moments with contemporary expressions that make it feel more alive than staged.

It is testament to the film’s aura that you quickly forget you’re watching a filmed play and lose yourselves in the characters and their plights. Of particular note are Shawn as Vanya, who plays the character as a self-aware moping sadsack with a deep vein of resentment infusing his every action, and Moore as Yelena, a decent woman who is misunderstood and used by almost everyone around her. The alchemy of Gregory’s staging and Malle’s direction turn what could have been an exercise in canned theater into something very nearly sublime.

Vanya on 42nd Street Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films Blu-ray Box SetVanya on 42nd Street is available as a stand-alone Blu-ray or in the three-disc box set “André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films” (SRP: $99.95), which also includes My Dinner With Andre (1981) and A Master Builder (2014).
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English DTS-HD 2.0 stereo
  • Subtitles English
  • Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street retrospective documentary
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Steven Vineberg and a 1994 on-set report by film critic Amy Taubin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 16, 2015

    Like My Dinner With Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street was shot on Super 16mm, which means that the image will be a little grainier and less well-defined than traditional 35mm celluloid. The high-definition transfer on Criterion’s Blu-ray edition was made under the supervision of director of photography Declan Quinn from the original camera negative A/B rolls and the 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with Image Systems’ Phoenix and MTI’s DRS. The image looks very good, with a strong sense of depth that helps emphasize the crumbling environment of the theater around the characters. Much of the film is composed of close-ups, and detail looks good and skin colors look natural, although the warm lighting throughout tends to give faces a slightly golden-reddish hue. There is good contrast throughout, as the background tends to be quite dark while the characters are lit from multiple directions. The original stereo soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic audio tracks and digitally restored. The result is clean and pleasant, with clear dialogue and just enough punch on the subtle jazz background score.
    The main supplement on the disc is Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street, an excellent 35-minute retrospective documentary that features new interviews with just about everyone involved in the film, including André Gregory, the play’s director; actors Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, and Brooke Smith; and producer Fred Berner. There is also a trailer and an insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Steven Vineberg and a 1994 on-set report by film critic Amy Taubin.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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