Monday, May 8, 2017
Louis Malle | Vanya on 42nd Street
tired travelers on broadway
by Douglas Messerli
Anton Chekhov (translated by David Mamet, directed as a play by André Gregory), Louis Malle (film director) Vanya on 42nd Street / 1994
In his 2012 review of Louis Malle’s film Vanya on 42nd Street, André Gregory’s direction of a production of the Chekov play, translated by David Mamet, The New York Times reviewer, Charles Taylor begins with what he describes as his usual reaction to “seeing actors onstage”: “Oh, come off it.” Such a reaction was almost inevitable to get approval from Gregory who works hard to force his actors to uncover the “reality” of their roles by rehearsing over long years, and producing his plays not on the normal proscenium stages, but in various other kinds of spaces outside of stage lights and traditional costumes.
Vanya on 42nd Street, staring one of Gregory’s favorites, Wallace Shawn, as well as Julianne Moore, George Gaynes, Larry Pine, and numerous other talented actors, is an almost documentary version of just such a production. For years from 1989 to the early 1990s, Gregory used the vacant but soon-to-be refurbished Victory Theater, which was originally opened by Oscar Hammerstein in 1899 before it became a 42nd street porno theater. During that same period I saw Mac Wellman’s Crowbar there, with the audience sitting upon the stage (my friend Mac allowed be a balcony seat where I could observe both audience and the theater actions).
For the later rehearsals of Vanya, however, one of which became the movie that Malle filmed, he moved the production down the street to the former New Amsterdam Theatre, whose stage was in such decay—eaten away by rats—that they used what seems to be the lobby, also in grand decay.
True to is his anti-theatrical perspective, Gregory, and Malle, begin with the characters arriving via subway on 42nd Street, the lead, Shawn, devouring a knish from a food stand that spells indigestion at first sight. The actors, gradually moving into the dilapidated grand theater, begin talking as Shawn curls up on a couch for a nap. Without our really knowing it, the play begins. As Taylor notes, Shawn wakes up as Uncle Vanya.
Let me just repeat, however, before I begin to discuss the results of Gregory/Malle’s methods—in many ways as far away from “method” acting as you can get, but a “method,” nonetheless that attempts to get to “the heart of things” and a kind of “realistic” acting style—that I actually like theater-acting and don’t at all mind a theatrically-conceived production. But then, I also love opera, melodrama, and even over-the-top camp theater. The very idea that we have to chew the play down to the bone to get to the everyday-ness of the playwright’s meanings seems, to me, to be utter nonsense. Chekov, like Ibsen, and hundreds of other playwrights before and since, meant their works to be staged imitations of life, not actual representations of what life might be or have been. I’ll go with Wilde any day: theater is not real life, and that’s what makes it so illuminative and marvelous. Unhappy families who, as Tolstoy argues always lead to a different kind of life, are not necessarily any more interesting than “happy” ones; they’re just different. And they have little to do, most of the time, with everyday life. I like beautiful people on a stage, nicely lit, beautifully designed, saying things that you might not hear in your ordinary experience. And sometimes these strange and unordinary goings-on say more about what we might define as “truth” than any “real-life” revelation might tell us.
Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for Gregory’s method, caught on screen in Malle’s excellent filming, for the actors to get so comfortable in their parts that they’re not afraid of being truly boring. In fact, all of Chekhov’s figures in Uncle Vanya (and some of his other plays) are precisely that, absolutely boring figures who go about pretending that they are something other, not only to others, but to themselves. Certainly the awkward, Sonya (Brooke Smith), daughter of the “great” art scholar/thinker, is precisely that. She has beautiful hair and nice eyes, so she is told, but men—particularly the neighbor she loves, Dr. Astov (Larry Pine)—while enjoying her presence, basically ignore her, not even perceiving that she might have deep emotions within.
Her uncle, with whom she has long lived alone as the caretakers of the house in which they live, like almost all of Shawn’s characters (as recognizable now as Woody Allen) is a shrill whiner, a kind of nebbish who might have been but will never be, a man of some interest and worth. I say this, recognizing all of Shawn’s immense talents as both a playwright and actor of both film and stage. Shawn, as a real individual, I can assure you, is an utterly fascinating intellect. But, at least in his Gregory-directed productions, he generally plays a suffering fool.
Although Astov is represented by all those around him, particularly the women in this play, as a superior being, a man who is trying to save nature, and—amazingly far ahead of his own time—attempting to change the natural world, climate, and human behavior (in creating this character, Chekhov, at least as translated by David Mamet, seems to have looked deeply into our own hearts), he is also a kind of pedant, a man who can’t see his beloved trees for the forest; if nothing else, in his somewhat fatal attraction to Yelena (Moore) he has missed out in the woman who might most help him to achieve his goals, Sonya. But she is too modest to attempt to suggest to him how boorish he truly is, and no one else in this play is strong enough to help him perceive anything different. As Sonya recognizes, he simply doesn’t see her as a living being.
The worst in this crowd of boorish beings (figures to whom Chekhov was often attracted) is the so-called genius, Serbyryakov, to whom both Sonya and Vanya have devoted their lives. Yet, gradually, as they print out and translate his life’s work—believing always that he was a man of great insight and intelligence—gradually discover that his “great” ideas are merely hackneyed responses to others, along with a great deal of appropriation. When and how they came to that perception is never explained by the playwright; but by the time Serbyraykov and his wife Yelena have entered their domain, certainly Vanya has turned from a committed follower into a bitter cynic about his brother’s genius.
In short, none of this play’s figures can rise above the mediocrity that was perhaps destined for them. And that is the real tragedy of the work, which Gregory’s method of wearing his actors down, illuminates. Like Shawn in the very first scene, they all seem desperately tired of even living; certainly they are tired of one another’s company. in other productions, with more authoritative acting, we might possibly think that Vanya, Astrov, or even Serbyryakov might still rouse themselves into something of greatness. Perhaps even Sonya might, through her suffering, redeem the others. But Gregory makes it clear that the only hope these characters have is their acceptance of their sad conditions and the illusions they might still be able to maintain.
In the end, however, Malle’s very lovely movie, his last before his death, also seems tired, full of people so filled with ennui—despite their obvious talents—that they cannot even fully illuminate their characters. Gregory sought out the characters’ boringness so fully, that the play, despite memorable moments, cannot quite rouse itself into a full theatrical event. Yes, it’s very every day, but is it truly like us?
Finally, what seemed most to be missing in this production, was Chekhov’s sense of humor. These are all, in one sense or another, comic figures, failed human beings not because of their boredom or boorishness but because of their illusions. Does Serbyraykov really believe he is a great thinker anymore? Is Yelena truly convinced that she is still in love? Is Astrov actually convinced that his forest is more real than the human beings he keeps seeking out? Does Vanya actually believe he might have had another calling, another life? Is Sonya so convinced of her invisibility that she cannot even see the value of her own life? Yes, I would argue, the characters are all fools—just like the rest of us—but need they also be tired boors?
Los Angeles, May 8, 2017