Film review: Vanya on 42nd Street

Published: Sunday, March 5 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

"Vanya on 42nd Street" is essentially a workshop theater production on film, and it is certainly a labor of love for the actors and filmmakers.

Reuniting the "My Dinner With Andre" team - director Louis Malle and actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory - "Vanya on 42nd Street" is a remarkable adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya," directed for the stage by Gregory and adapted by playwright/screenwriter David Mamet ("The Untouchables," "Things Change").

The film opens with the participants walking New York streets, headed for the New Amsterdam Theater, which is off Times Square. The play never actually opened a commercial engagement, but the actors would gather together for director Gregory (over the course of several years) in a theater that was unsafe and condemned, performing on a makeshift stage in the orchestra pit. (All of this is shown in the opening moments of the film).

As the cast members greet each other, and Gregory offers some basic explanations to a couple of visitors to prepare them for this "run-through," the play just naturally begins. In fact, it starts in such a seamless manner that the film audience may not even recognize the transition from casual conversation to the beginning of the play itself.

And despite the fact that the actors never change from their street clothes, and that while they use the Russian names of Chekhov's characters, none try to affect accents - or use any other devices aside from acting skills and a few props - the show is utterly entrancing.

Shawn has the title role, as mousy, complaining, ever-dissatisfied but always witty and articulate Uncle Vanya, who is in love with his brother's younger and stunningly beautiful wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore).

Vanya's brother is Prof. Serybryakov (George Gaynes), the owner of the estate where they live, a pompous, arrogant man who drives everyone crazy. And as they sit around pontificating about the state of things, we see that pseudo-sophisticates have nothing to do, and all complain of boredom.

Enter Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), a drunken idealist who is also falling in love with Yelena, which will prove disruptive to the family because Serybryakov's daughter Sonya (Brooke Smith) is in love with the good doctor.

Needless to say, things get complicated - and as Chekhov fans know, are capped off by a wonderful monologue from Sonya at the end of the play, a monologue that Smith delivers superbly.

Somehow, "Vanya on 42nd Street" manages to be both a delightful adaptation of the play and a satisfying celebration of theater. The performances here are all knockouts, with a perfect ensemble cast (which also includes Lynn Cohen, Pheoebe Brand and Jerry Mayer), and Malle, using subtle moviemaking technique, keeps things moving so that we hardly realize we are stagebound for nearly two hours.

"Vanya on 42nd Street" is rated PG for a moment of gunplay.

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