Vanya on 42nd Street: Criterion Collection
February 20, 2006
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) began in 1989 as an extended workshop by legendary stage director Andre Gregory. He assembled a cast of actors to rehears Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the abandoned Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City. They continued to assemble occasionally over the next four years. There was no intention of performing in front of an audience but eventually a few friends were invited to watch rehearsals. By 1994, Gregory invited director Louis Malle to film the play but under unusual circumstances. The cast would perform in their street clothes with a minimal amount of furniture and rehearsal props at the unused New Amsterdam Theatre across the street. The result was a unique fusion of theater and film, rehearsal and performance and actor and character, as the DVD liner notes so eloquently put it.
We see the cast and a few of their friends walking through the busy, bustling streets before heading into the decrepit yet still magnificent-looking theater. “It’s all crumbling but it’s all so beautiful,” someone observes. At first, it seems like we are watching a documentary but the “friends” are actually people playing a part and already boundaries are intriguingly being blurred, setting the tone for the rest of the film.
David Mamet adapted Chekhov’s play and transformed it from being about Russian intellectuals in the 19th century to contemporary Stanislavsky-trained American actors putting on a play. By letting his cast absorb and mull over the play for years, Gregory allowed them to really immerse themselves in it and live with it in a way that is rare. So, when the film was shot they knew it inside and out. It doesn’t take us long to forget about the unusual setting and becoming wrapped up in the performances and this is because of the talented cast that features the likes of Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), George Gaynes (Police Academy) and Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights) among others.
Russian plays can come across as stuffy and boring and by taking Uncle Vanya out of its familiar setting and context; Malle breathes new life into it by having us look at it in a different way. Vanya on 42nd Street is so much more than a contemporary spin on Chekhov’s play. It is also a masterclass on acting and how actors need very little in the way of props to create art. All they really need is their imagination and the ability to make us believe in their performance.
“Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street” is a 2011 documentary made specifically for this release. It features the film’s cast reflecting on the play and Malle’s film after all these years. Gregory talks about how he came upon the idea while the actors explain what drew them to it, or, in Wallace Shawn’s case, his reluctance to do it. Gregory and his actors take us through the chaotic nature of early rehearsals to actual filming with all kinds of anecdotes and in-depth analysis about what they did.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.