Written by Greg Barbrick
As it turned out, Vanya On 42nd Street (1994) was the final film completed by legendary director Louis Malle. Although the subject matter is different, the comparisons to his previous My Dinner With Andre (1981) are unavoidable. Both films seem to be almost documentary in nature. My Dinner With Andre presented a fascinating dinner conversation between actor Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory. The discussion is so wide-ranging it appears to be completely improvised. Vanya on 42nd Street is presented as an off-the-cuff recording of a rehearsal of the play, at the decaying New Amsterdam Theatre in Times Square.
What makes both films so fascinating though is the fact that while both appear to be unrehearsed, they in fact were completely scripted. I first watched Vanya on VHS back in 1995, and completely bought the premise of it being a rehearsal. It was not until much later that I found out the truth.
The movie begins with the cast meeting up in Times Square, and walking to the theatre. Once inside, they share some small talk and segue seamlessly into the play. The actual moment that this occurs takes a couple of viewings to pin down. At one point, Wallace Shawn lays down on an old couch, and mentions that he has not been sleeping well over the past few days. Without missing a beat, he slips into the character of Uncle Vanya, and the low-key “rehearsal” is under way.
The theater is almost a character in its own right. It looks for all the world as if it is ready to crumble around the actors. One cannot imagine this dark, dank room being the actual space the play will be performed at. This again adds to the feeling of the film being nothing more than a backstage peek at what goes into the preparation of a major performance.
Besides the meticulous creation of atmosphere, the play/film has a number of other intriguing elements. Uncle Vanya is the basis of the script, which was originally written in 1899 by Anton Chekhov. The story concerns Russian intellectuals on “vacation” in the country, with nothing better to do than discuss their lives. The play has been adapted by David Mamet, who has done much to bring it closer to the rhythms of contemporary American speech, without significantly altering the late-19th century Russian context of the story.
Another brilliant (if unforeseen) connection the film Vanya on 42nd Street shares with Uncle Vanya is that both chronicle the last days of a particular period of time. The underlying theme of Chekhov’s play was that the characters represented the last days of the old Czarist Russia, even if they were completely unaware of it. Vanya on 42nd Street represents a Times Square that no longer exists as well. By the end of the 1990s, the Disney-fication of the legendary sleaze district was complete. The brilliant actors assembled by Malle and Gregory ply their trade in a theatre that is literally on its last legs. The feeling of commitment to the work, no matter what the surroundings, is palpable.
The bonus features on this Criterion Collection DVD are primarily interviews. The segments include discussions with the play’s director Andre Gregory, plus actors Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Brook Smith, and producer Fred Berner.
Vanya on 42nd Street is unlike any film I have ever seen. The way Louis Malle frames it as a “simple” rehearsal is brilliant and catches the viewer completely off-guard. But it is the performances themselves that really make this film so special. The dialogue is quite involved and to watch these pros deliver it so well, with no stops or breaks, is something very special. The film works on a number of levels, and is recommended for those who appreciate the true art of acting on stage, as well as some very imaginative filmmaking.