The actors assemble, one by one and in pairs, wandering through a pre-Giuliani Times Square, to the old Amsterdam Theatre on "the Deuce." Director André Gregory chats with his old co-star (and dinner companion) Wallace Shawn; an associate has asked to sit in at the rehearsal they're heading up to. "You've come on a great day," he tells her, "because we're going to be running through the entire play." They straggle in to the abandoned theatre, its stage eaten away by the years, the original seats all gone, yet the beauty of the venue still present even in its current, dilapidated state. The actors engage in pre-rehearsal chit-chat; their health, the other shows they're doing, so on. But it takes a cutaway to the "audience" of Gregory and the day's visitors to realize that the "show" has begun--the play begins before we realize it, since the actors are in their street clothes, and are performing Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in a conversational, naturalistic style.
The adaptation is by David Mamet, and director Gregory first assembled this cast for a series of workshop-style rehearsals, later performed (only a few times) for a small, invited audience. He cast Shawn in the title role, so it only seems natural that the film version fell into the hands of Louis Malle, director of their classic My Dinner with André. (It would be his final feature film; he died the year after its release.) As with the earlier effort, it is a small film with an interest in talk--this time, that of Chekhov by way of Mamet. That pairing sounds about as appealing as peanut butter and mustard, but it works; this is a thankfully accessible adaptation, managing to make the Russian dramatist's play approachable without thwarting the poetic tendencies of the author (or, in a very different way, the adapter).
The cast is filled with recognizable faces--chief among them Shawn, cinematically immortal thanks to his turn in The Princess Bride, as delightful as ever here. His Vanya is wistful and intelligent, witty yet deeply unsatisfied; he handles most of the tumbling transitions well, though he does quiet coldness more convincingly than shouting anger (which always seems unfortunately on the verge of "Inconceivable!" territory). By the time of the film's release, Julianne Moore had gained considerable name recognition in the indie film community (thanks to her, ahem, memorable work in Short Cuts), and was thus rather disproportionately spotlighted in the film's advertising. But it is a masterful and radiant piece of work, conflicted and subdued, a whirlwind of emotions brewing just under her confident surface.
A few other performers make brief impressions (George Gaynes shows depths you wouldn't have suspected from Punky Brewster and the Police Academy movies); the most revelatory is Brooke Smith, best known for screaming from the bottom of a well in Silence of the Lambs. Here, as wallflower Sonya, she's utterly heartbreaking--watch carefully the way she receives a bit of bad news from Moore's Yelena, even before it's been delivered. The entire ensemble is good, though, and they work beautifully together, particularly in the long early stretch of searching conversations that go late into the night, when truths seems more easily told.
Malle finds certain cinematic possibilities in the piece; most of them are successful, like Shawn's delivery of an important monologue directly into a slowly-approaching camera, though there's a strange moment at the beginning of the "second act" where a brief inner monologue of Moore's is heard as a voice-over, oddly breaking our sense of the rehearsal-hall reality. For the most part, though, Malle seems to see his job as recording the play, almost in a documentary fashion (complete with a subtly handheld camera). In a lesser play, with lesser actors, this would grow tiresome quickly. Here, it is riveting.
Video & Audio:
The MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p transfer is up to Criterion's usual high standards--Declan Quinn's warm, earthy cinematography is lovingly rendered into a clean, natural, and highly cinematic high-def image. The single audio option is an English LPCM two-channel stereo track; as per usual, no surround remixes for this Criterion disc, though the minimal track certainly doesn't cry out for much sprucing or separation. It only needs to convey the dialogue, which this mix does crisply and evenly, with some occasional spice provided by Joshua Redman's jazz score.
English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The bonus features are a little slender (particularly for a Criterion release), but they're choice. Well, more accurately, it is choice--aside from the Theatrical Trailer (2:14), the only supplement is the new featurette "Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street" (35:42). But it is very, very good, interviewing most of the participants and walking through the full process, from rehearsal to (limited) staging to screen--a process that stretched over a period of four years. There are no stills or footage from the rehearsals or original staging, so the featurette is made up entirely of interviews, supplemented by clips and images from the film, but it doesn't drag; the participants tell some terrific stories, particularly in recalling some of the high-profile guests at the intimate performances.
Vanya on 42nd Street is a film filled with fine moments, but the best comes at the very end, and it is one that deftly summarizes the strength of the entire enterprise. Sonya has a sad speech of quiet resignation, and as Brooke Smith delivers it, the words transform her--and she, in turn, transforms the words, finding the hope buried within them, merging the bitter and the sweet into something sublime. "We shall rest to the songs of the angels," she tells poor Uncle Vanya. "I know you've had no joy in your life, but just wait." In that moment, we've forgotten about the actors, or the costumes, or the sets, or what is missing. We're focused on what is there: the words, the powerful, magnificent words. That is what this fine film is really all about.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.