Film Review: Vanya on 42nd Street
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. December 23, 1994
some chairs, many shadows reaching out into the unseen depths of an abandoned
theater, and a long night of truth-telling.
the elements of
on 42nd Street, a film which reduces Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to its bare elements:
loneliness, wasted lives, romantic hope and despair. To add elaborate sets,
costumes and locations to this material would only dilute it.
is the result of a five-year theatrical experiment.
Gregory and the actor Wallace
Shawn, who collaborated on My Dinner with Andre (1981), gathered other actors and began to perform Vanya here and there around New York, in
small theaters or even in the apartments of friends. Any room would do.
more interested in the words, using a translation by David
Mamet that makes the dialogue both
conversational and somehow more formal, more thoughtful, than ordinary
One night Louis
Malle, the French filmmaker who made My Dinner with Andre, came to see the
work in progress, and suggested that he film it. So the old friends were
reunited after a decade, and the opening scenes of Vanya on 42nd Street suggest the earlier film, as the principals
make their way through the streets of Manhattan for a rendezvous. We see the
actors arriving for work, carrying paper cups of coffee, making their way into
the New Amsterdam Theater, where faded glory waits under a layer of dust and
starts before we realize it. One moment we are settling in with Gregory and a
few other observers for a rehearsal, and the next the lighting has been subtly
altered, and the big old table on the stage has become a sitting room on a
rural estate in Russia.
characters are among the most familiar in literature.
Vanya (Shawn), now in his 40s, has for many years managed the estate for Serybryakov
(George Gaynes), the husband of his late sister. This man has now returned to
the estate with his young wife Yelena (Julianne
Moore). Vanya hates Serybryakov – feels he has wasted his life making money for him – and feels a secret passion for Yelena. He is enraged that
Serybryakov has returned with plans to sell the estate and make its residents
the household are Sonya (Brooke
Smith), Vanya's niece; Maman (Lynn
Cohen), their old mother; Marina (Phoebe
Brand), a family retainer; and the sad, haunted figure of Dr. Astrov (Larry
Pine), a neighbor who comes many nights
to sit and drink himself into oblivion. The emotional connections are these:
Serybryakov feels himself too old for the young Yelena; Vanya feels himself the
right age for her, but cut off by poverty; and poor quiet Sonya has nursed a
quiet love for Dr. Astrov for years.
subject of the play is, What use should we make of our lives? The deeper
subject is the fear of the characters that they have wasted theirs. Serybryakov
is a gambler and a wastrel, who has tossed away the fortune he obtained from
Vanya's dead sister. Yelena has become the wife of this hollow man. Vanya has
spent his life in an obscure corner of the world, managing an estate whose owner
can hardly be bothered to visit it. Astrov is lost in alcohol, Sonya dares not
even speak of her love for him, and all of them go around and around, repeating
the same patterns, nursing the same resentments, until something must break.
does, in the famous scene where Vanya picks up a revolver and threatens to end
the charade with bloodshed. But there are quieter moments in the play that are
even more violent, as, in the middle of the night, the characters finally tell
each other what they truly dream, love, and fear.
whose films are usually much larger (Atlantic City; Pretty Baby; Au Revoir, les Enfants) shows again, as he did with My Dinner with Andre, that he is the master of a visual style
suited to tightly-encompassed material. There is not a shot that calls
attention to itself, and yet not a shot that is without thought. From time to
time, he draws back from the drama to remind us of the watchers in the theater,
and has Andre Gregory, the director of the stage version, murmur a few quiet
words of comment or explanation to his guests. Gregory's attitude – absorbed, fascinated, unobtrusive – sets the tone for how to watch the play, and Malle's camera
goes for exactly the same tone.
The title Vanya on 42nd Street suggests some kind
of jazzy updating of Chekhov, a modern-dress revisionism. The film is just the
opposite. Although the actors' clothing and their cardboard cups of coffee are
admissions that the production is taking place right now, the drama seems to
take place outside time. It is not about characters in 19th century Russia, but
about anyone who feels their lives have been placed on hold – that some "necessity," such as a family
responsibility or a financial need, has required them to spend years going
through motions that are irrelevant to what they really feel and need.
All of the
characters have thrown away their lives, but none is more agonized about it
than Vanya. Wallace Shawn's performance in this role has been criticized in
some quarters because the actor is, well, too comic, or too much of a tortured
nebbish, to be a Chekhovian hero. I felt the opposite. Shawn is so specific, so
entirely himself, that he brings Vanya right down to the bottom line: He is not
great, not brilliant, not smooth, not lucky with women, but by God he has
feelings, too! And among them is the conviction that he has been dealt a rotten
At the end
of the film, there is a long monologue by Sonya, the quiet one whose family
role has been as a passive background presence. At last she says what she
thinks. The scene is wonderfully handled by Brooke Smith, who gives expression
to what Sonya hopes: That if there is nothing to be done in this life, at least
we may find a perfect mercy beyond the grave. The film ends with not much conviction
that this will happen – but at least the characters can, once again, dream.