Combustible Celluloid
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With: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Julianne Moore, Phoebe Brand, Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Jerry Mayer, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, Madhur Jaffrey
Written by: David Mamet, Andre Gregory, based on the play by Anton Chekhov
Directed by: Louis Malle
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 119
Date: 09/13/1994

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Reality Chekhov

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've never really seen anything like Vanya on 42nd Street. The movie starts with Louis Malle's familiar gritty, low budget camerawork that characterized My Dinner With Andre. We see Wallace Shawn, now more readily recognized on the street than he was thirteen years ago, standing eating a knish. Andre Gregory walks down 42nd street, followed by Julianne Moore and other actors. They meet in front of a dilapidated old theatre and go inside. We know we are going to see Chekov's Uncle Vanya. One woman says she's never seen it. Gregory begins to explain it to her. Everyone begins to wander around the beautiful, crumbling old theatre, chatting, setting up. Wallace Shawn lays down on a bench and shuts his eyes. Then he wakes up. Two people begin having a conversation. Slowly, we realize that the play has begun. Shawn is now Uncle Vanya.

At one point, the camera swings around and we see Shawn, who is now the director of the play, sitting and watching with the audience.

The actors are wearing street clothes. They drink coffee from paper cups burped out by a coin-operated machine. We hear car alarms in the background. Malle's camera shakes every once in a while. Yet the camera also gets up close to the actors and catches marvelously intimate performances that the stage could not begin to catch. We begin to enter the world of Uncle Vanya. We get involved with the drama. The old theatre becomes the old mansion in the story. Between scenes, Gregory gets up and leads his audience to where the next scene will be, explaining when and where in the story it takes place. (The actors cannot use the stage for fear that it will collapse. They use lobbies, stairwells and other locations in the theatre.)

This is totally unorthodox theatre and totally unorthodox cinema, and they are married in a very easy and comfortable way. We are treated to a very intense dramatic story in a very easy and casual vehicle.

Apparently, Gregory assembled these actors and actresses with the idea of rehearsing Uncle Vanya without ever performing for an audience. They met on and off for years before Gregory approached Louis Malle to direct a film of a run-through. The actors are extremely familiar and comfortable with each other, and it's easy to see how possible real life relations may have mirrored the ones in the story.

The company used David Mamet's adaptation of the Chekov play, and Joshua Redman contributed a small but beautiful jazz score. By the time Vanya on 42nd Street was made, Julianne Moore had already appeared in the popular and critically acclaimed films like The Fugitive and Short Cuts, and she adds unexpected box office appeal. In short, A lot of great talents created a great film very cheaply and interestingly. Vanya on 42nd Street is a rare experience, and a special treasure.

Columbia/TriStar's 2002 DVD includes a few trailers. In 2012, the Criterion Collection released new DVD and Blu-Ray editions. In 2015, Criterion released an excellent box set Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, which also includes new Blu-rays of My Dinner with Andre (1981) and A Master Builder as well as the 2012 version of Vanya. Cinematographer Declan Quinn supervised the transfer, and there's an uncompressed 2.0 soundtrack. We get a documentary that interviews most of the cast, a trailer, and a liner notes booklet with an essay by critic Steven Vineberg, and a 1994 on-set report by film critic Amy Taubin.

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