Where the Lines of Performance and Psychological Realism Blur: ‘Vanya on 42nd Street’

If a play is not a play with performances by actors not acting in a production meant never to be staged, can it be made into a motion picture that is later hailed as a piece of art? Quite simply and most definitely: Yes. And should you require evidence of such a claim please direct your attention to Louis Malle’s splendid 1994 film, Vanya on 42nd Street, which has recently been released and restored in DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

Cinematic productions of stage plays tend to exist on a spectrum between compulsory academic viewing and an exercise in outright tedium. On its surface Vanya on 42nd Street seems about as exciting (and original) as sitting through a post-graduate lecture on the nature of art and artifice. That the movie does not descend into pretentious boredom, and instead rises into the realm of the wonderful, owes as much to committed collaboration amongst its participants as it does to some alchemical artistic force.

The distant (and most critical) seed to this film’s brilliance is obviously the classic Anton Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. Its more direct inspiration, however, stems from noted American theatre director André Gregory’s non-staging of the play over the course of several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Assembled as an ever-evolving and casual workshop of artistic exploration. Gregory and his cast would come together to read, examine and immerse themselves in Vanya on 42nd Street (adapted to American sensibilities by the brilliant David Mamet).

Whether any grand or new artistic truth could be revealed through this exercise was dubious at best. However, the pedigree of the cast — including Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith, George Gaynes and Larry Pine — certainly guaranteed an interesting exploration into the very nature of drama, acting and art. No intention of taking the play beyond the rehearsal phase ever existed. In fact, a vow was made between the director and his cast to never stage Vanya on 42nd Street as an actual production in front of an audience.

Vanya on 42nd Street was to be a casual, intimate and seemingly continuous rehearsal of a single piece of dramatic fiction where the lines of performance and psychological realism blurred. What Gregory sought above all else was the nature of being present. To reach beyond form, function and training and to trust that life in the moment reveals the purest emotions, the most natural lyricism of our fundamental humanity and the greatest potential to achieve art.

The pact to never perform the play in front of an audience was eventually broken after whispers turned to chatter and the theatre community grew increasingly intrigued by this exclusive little non production. The crumbling Victory Theatre on 42nd Street proved too irresistible a setting and Gregory compromised on his initial vow and allowed for a limited run of 12 performances where attendees would be guests selected by the actors (who were limited to two tickets apiece). Enthusiasm and support for this powerful exhibition of non theatre grew rapidly and soon an official 5-week run was announced (with the additional agreement to bump invites from two to four).

The hype around Vanya on 42nd Street was as much about the self-conscious New York art scene that demands exclusivity as it was about a genuine departure into the realm of art. The guest list to these private performances was a veritable who’s who in the world of art, culture and entertainment. Among the lucky few to attend a private performance was the legendary French director, Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants , Elevator to the Gallows, My Dinner with Andre).

Malle had a history with both Gregory and Shawn, whom he directed in his hit 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre. Initially, due to ill-health, Malle declined Gregory’s request to document the production. Eventually he was persuaded and Vanya on 42nd Street began to take form. All of the elements remained the same except for the venue, which was switched to the New Amsterdam, a boarded-up and even more decrepit 42nd Street theatre that retains a ravaged and austere beauty.

Dressed casually in street clothes the cast embodies the organic fluidity of moving between actor, character and the magical (other) being of existence. The dissolution of boundaries is initially a bit confusing but you are quick to catch on to Uncle Vanya the play and Vanya on 42nd Street the filmed production. The film begins with the group of actors coming together for their rehearsal and then without notice Uncle Vanya starts. Naturally, after so many years together the cast is open, comfortable and completely at ease with their characters and the experience of being in a performance. This allows for individual roles to expand with subtle, layered consideration and elevates the text, the characters and the play into the immediate – the moment – the living.

The actors are uniformly strong but Moore as Yelena, the young wife of an aging professor (George Gaynes), whose beauty and sexuality are as much a source of personal confusion as they are a force of yearning for Vanya (Shawn) and Dr. Astrov (Pine), is especially striking. Her performance is radiant, understated and full of artful veiling that humanizes Yelena in ways that many actors have failed to understand and, thus, accomplish.

Vanya on 42nd Street would turn out to be Malle’s final film as he died a year after the film was released in 1994. Malle has a storied but often misunderstood place in the pantheon of great film directors. His oeuvre is diverse, distinct and not easily categorized. Heralded early as one of the bright, brash young French filmmakers of the ’50s and ‘60s his films are often tagged as suspenseful, slick or sentimental. Such variety may suggest impatience but what is often overlooked when discussing Malle’s work is his passion to try something new and be unafraid of potential failure.

The Criterion Collection is right to triumph the work of Malle and Vanya on 42nd Street in particular. The DVD and Blu-ray releases come with your standard issue upgrade in digital transference and bonus features (admittedly, though, a bit thin by Criterion standards). Supplements include a theatrical trailer, Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street; an all-new documentary with cast and crew interviews, and a supplemental booklet with essays by critic Steven Vineberg and a re-print of a 1994 on-set essay by film critic Amy Taubin.

With Vanya on 42nd Street, Malle captured the rarest of gifts: art as natural lyricism — Art aware of but not limited by the artifice of its own process and creation. This film is as memorable and emotional a screen version of Chekhov’s masterpiece as one could ever hope to witness. It’s a loving coda to a brilliant career and a picture that resonates with grace, beauty and absolute wonder.

RATING 8 / 10