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Chekhov’s Century-Old ‘Vanya’ A Story For The 1990s

“Vanya on 42nd Street”

****

Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas

Credits: Directed by Louis Malle, from the Anton Chekhov stage play directed by Andre Gregory and adapted by David Mamet, starring Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, Larry Pine and George Gaynes.

Running time: 1:59

Rating: PG

When you utter the name Chekhov, some people bow their heads. They don’t do this in respect.

To the contrary, they do it because the very thought of having to sit through such plays as “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard” is enough to put them to sleep.

Though rightfully hailed as a literary genius, Anton Chekhov is easier for a contemporary reader to access through his short stories. This is because for all their Russian weightiness, they are as short as they are brilliant.

His dramas are equally brilliant studies of pre-Revolutionary Russia. But they are far from short. And, consisting almost entirely of people sitting around talking, they seem even longer than they actually are.

The notion of reviving a Chekhov play for a contemporary audience, then, seems doomed to irrelevancy. Especially when the revival is put up on a movie screen. Handsomely mounted the production may be. Possibly even effectively acted. But it would seem to be about as appropriate for a 1995 audience as a horse-drawn troika is to interstate travel.

And yet, and yet…

Andre Gregory doesn’t worry about movie audiences. Not overly so anyway. He is, after all, the man who in 1981 starred in a 110-minute movie about a dinner he once had with actor/playwright Wallace Shawn (“My Dinner With Andre”).

So it should come as no surprise that Gregory would undertake to revive Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya.” He began the project in 1989 as an ongoing “rehearsal,” which after a couple of years evolved into a bona-fide studio production. Held in a small space off Manhattan’s famed 42nd Street, the play achieved must-see status as much because of the obvious quality of the acting as for the fact that only 30 people could see it at a time.

Then a couple of years ago, Gregory and Shawn and filmmaker Louis Malle, the trio responsible for “My Dinner With Andre,” decided to bring “Vanya” to the screen. And if ever there were an argument for Chekhov being right for the ‘90s, this is it.

Chekhov’s play involves five major characters. Vanya (Shawn) and his niece Sonya (Brooke Smith) live on and co-manage the estate owned by Sonya’s father, a semi-famous professor (George Gaynes). As the play begins, the professor returns home with his second wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore), a younger woman who attracts the attentions both of Vanya and the area doctor, Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine).

What occurs in the play’s five acts is hardly plot-driven. Other than the professor’s surprise announcement that he has decided to sell the estate, which leads to Vanya’s aborted attempts to shoot him, nothing much happens. At the same time, everything happens.

For Chekhov’s work is ultimately a character study, with longing and frustration at its heart. Vanya loves Yelena, who doesn’t love him back. Sonya loves Dr. Astrov, who doesn’t love her back. Dr. Astrov loves Yelena, who won’t love him back. And the professor, too, loves Yelena, who can’t love him in the way he wants.

There’s more, too, most of it blending comedy and drama in somewhat equal parts. In the end, Chekhov seems to be saying that life is pain and the only release from that pain comes through simple acceptance tempered with hard work.

The amazing aspect to this particular production is how well it works despite either Gregory or Malle making even the slightest concession to setting. The actors shamble into the ruins of a theater (The New Amsterdam) in the process of being renovated; dressed in street clothes and working on a stage bearing only the most basic props, they begin performing almost before we know they’re doing so.

The success of this is partly due to the way that Malle, Gregory and playwright David Mamet, who did the dramatic adaptation, have set things up. Friendly stage gossip flows effortlessly into Chekhovian dialogue.

But then the actors who speak that dialogue are uniformly superb, especially the women. Moore (best known for such films as “Short Cuts” and “Benny and Joon”) and Smith (the captive in “Silence of the Lambs”) represent the two sides of longing: the loved and the loveless. Yet despite their contrasting statuses, each knows that she probably will never get the happiness she craves.

Of course, that’s true for everyone - the doctor, whose environmental concerns lend the play a contemporary feel; the professor, who lives with the pain of knowing that his life’s work is a far cry from the greatness he once aimed for; but especially Vanya, whose own frustration is compounded by the betrayal he feels over having sacrificed himself for the sake of a mediocrity.

If there is a speed bump in this production, it’s in Shawn’s performance. A natural comedian (not to mention an acquired taste), Shawn so often blurs the line between comedy and drama that it’s difficult in his scenes to know which is which at any given moment.

To be fair, though, Chekhov himself might have appreciated Shawn’s work. It was he who once insisted that he meant “Uncle Vanya” to be a comedy.

And then there’s this: If ever there was an era in which laughter seems the only way to hold back tears of rage, it is now. Writing more than a century ago, Chekhov captured our modern pulse as well as any author of today.

His perceptions, interpreted by Malle, Gregory and Mamet, are the stuff of great art. In honor of these artists, you may now bow your heads.

But only in respect.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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