A theater director invites some actor friends to take part in a workshop on Chekhov. He enlists a fine playwright to make a new translation for them of Uncle Vanya; and over the course of three years, they burrow as deeply into the meanings of the play as they can. When do they meet? Whenever they have free time. After three years of rehearsals, they’re ready for performance. Where do they perform? Wherever they can: in black-box theaters, abandoned warehouses, in living rooms of friends. How do they play it? In their street-clothes, with barely any props. A year later, a filmmaker friend of the director sees one of their performances. He suggests that one of their performances would make a good movie. They find an abandoned theater, get the rights to use it, and film the staging exactly as they do it. Before the play begins, you see the actors arriving at the theater and greeting one another. During intermission, you watch the actors talk to the crew while they both sit down to eating dinner together.
In a perfect world, this is how performing would always be done. People who love the stage simply come together as friends and put on a great show for other friends. Why do they do it? For the sheer pleasure they derive, and for trying to share that pleasure with friends. This is something done far more often in music. It is why classical composers used to write chamber music and folk musicians used to write songs for the taverns. In the days before recording, the only music most people could hear is the music they made themselves. In contemporary life, it’s a situation almost impossible to recreate. Without weeks upon weeks of practice, how can it be any good? And in today’s ever-busy world, it simply isn’t possible for most amateurs, even talented ones, to make the commitment it takes to put on a great show. No one can deny that modernity has improved the lot of our lives, but at least a few wonderful things were lost.
This was exactly how Vanya on 42nd Street got made. The theater director was Andre Gregory, probably best known to you (and I) as Andre, the idealistic, manic talker from My Dinner with Andre. The filmmaker is the same director from that movie, Louis Malle. The actors included Wallace Shawn (the “My’ in My Dinner with Andre, and a much-beloved character actor in The Princess Bride and Clueless), Julliane Moore (you know), Larry Pine (a Woody Allen regular), Phoebe Brand (an original member of Group Theater), Brooke Smith (Dr. Hahn on Grey’s Anatomy), Lynn Cohen (Magda on Sex and the City), Madhur Jaffrey (a Merchant/Ivory regular), and George Gaynes (the Commandant in Police Academy). The writer was David Mamet, one of the pre-eminent living American playwrights. The abandoned theater was the New Amsterdam Theater, once home of the Ziegfield Follies. What a sad commentary it is that only professionals of this caliber could do something like this.
This movie so clearly should not work. There is no attempt to make us think we’re watching anything but artifice. We get actors in their street clothes, declaiming a stilted, formal language that sounds completely at odds with how people converse today. There is no attempt to suspend our disbelief, we are watching contemporary people act Chekhov on a bare stage. There is no attempt to blend the styles of the actors, which vary from George Gaynes’s hyper-honeyed elocution to Wallace Shawn’s nebbisher whine.
How could it possibly work? It works because it’s so personal. It works because each actor acts in a style so unique, so vivid, so distinct from one another that we can’t help identifying with each of them. It doesn’t feel like acting, it just seems as though people are talking and feeling and breathing on the stage as they would in real life. Each actor seems to play not only a character, but a version of themselves and, perhaps, a version of ourselves too. There may be no attempt at a plausible staging, but each of these characters plays an extraordinarily plausible character. Method Acting has produced a lot of crap over the years, but we watch this and realize, yes, this is how method acting should work!
(The finale. For me, the most moving scene ever written for the stage. It’s difficult to believe that Isaac Bashevis Singer didn’t have this scene in mind when he wrote the conclusion of Gimpel the Fool.)
The “Method” was, at least in embryo, the invention of Constantin Stanislavski - the Russian director who first staged Chekhov’s plays. His idea was that actors are like all of us, only charged with a task that requires much more vulnerability of them. Like us in the audience, actors will identify with a character because they see something of themselves reflected back. His method, in simplified form, was to ask the actor to think of a time in their lives when they were confronted with a situation similar to the character’s, and base the feeling, tone and energy of their performance upon how that situation made them feel.
It was a long way from the days of Shakespeare, when actors were merely asked to learn the lines of their scenes with good diction - and usually had no idea what else was happening in the play. What sprang up around Stanislavski and Chekhov was a Golden Age of drama. Strindberg and Ibsen preceded Chekhov in the North, Eugene O’Neill and Bernard Shaw followed Chekhov in the West. Together, they formed the backbone of a movement in drama that is (perhaps mistakenly) called ‘Realism.’ What these playwrights managed to do was to endow drama with some of the texture of people we would all recognize. Sophecles may have been unparalleled at displaying tragedy, but his characters are like cardboard drawings in a schematic (picture Antigone at a Walmart). Shakespeare may have been wonderful at portraying human emotions , but his characters are not recognizable to us (picture Othello taking out the garbage). Moliere may have been great at upending social conventions, but his characters had no real life outside of what they said (picture Tartuffe going to the DMV). In the plays of ‘realists’, and perhaps Chekhov most of all, we can picture the characters going through their lives, just as we do, with all the same unglamourous responsibilities we have.
(The Announcement. Comic or tragic?)
Chekhov called Uncle Vanya a comedy, which may be the joke itself. It’s not a comedy in the modern sense since there aren’t many laughs. And it’s not a comedy in the antiquated sense either because things don’t end particularly happily. Lots of issues are raised, gales of turbulence ensue, but nothing changes. If it’s a comedy, it’s only a comedy because life goes on, just as it did before. Perhaps that is the only triumph we have any right to ask of life, but all the same it’s still a triumph for every one of us.
The humor, if it’s humor, is very black indeed. Chekhov has an exceedingly rare ability that you only find in the very greatest artists. On every page, his writing is capable of expressing every human emotion of which you can think - sadness, joy, humor, disgust, apathy, wonder, despair, hope, pity, contempt - at the exact same time. The fights in Chekhov dramas aren’t really fights, because people bicker over things for which there is no reason to bicker. One character makes a suggestion for a change in people’s situation, which causes another character to fly into a rage and call up decades-long litany of resentments, words ensue that everybody regrets. But then everybody makes their peace, and life continues just as it did before, until the next argument.
This is how life unfolds for 99.999% of the human race. We are not the masters of our destinies, and life steers us far more often than we steer life. Life unfolds in a way for which we cannot possibly plan. And enjoyment can only be derived if we stop fighting it and cease our attempts to put ourselves in the driver’s seat.
Perhaps this is why Uncle Vanya is such a moving play. Not that it’s the exception in Chekhov. No writer’s work is so populated with people who wish life had turned differently as Chekhov’s. Whether it’s Vanya or Lyuba from The Cherry Orchard or Misail from My Life or Andrey from The Black Monk or Anna on the Neck, we watch people live their lives with the same unfulfilled expectations as we all often have. Each of these characters knows too many disappointments, occasional joy, and lots of boredom. But come what may for each, life goes on.
Perhaps it’s a misnomer to call the play “Uncle Vanya,” because there is no main character in the play - he is only the most flagrantly emotional. And there are few performances in movies I find more moving than Wallace Shawn’s in this one. This is a man so aware of his own inadequacies as to put the viewer in a perpetual state of discomfort. We are watching a man so aware of his own failings that he feels a desperate need to point out the limitations of others - thinking himself invulnerable because life has thrown him every hurdle for which he has imagination. But just when he thinks his life at rock-bottom, life manages to throw him entirely new ones, and he loses control. His knows that his pretensions to intelligence might be nothing but bombast. He observes his own awkwardness with women, and recoils from it just as we do. Life has so worn him down that all he has left to offer is snarky observations about people whom he regards with poisonous envy. He has forfeited his ambitions, his dreams of love, his hopes for happiness or a meaningful life. He may be precisely the 'non-person' which he’s accused of being, but he’s a human being entitled to the same dignity as everyone else. And he will not let anyone forget it, not even for a moment. I don’t think I have ever seen an actor be so emotionally raw as Shawn is in this movie. His angry leer he gives during soliloquies to the camera, his shrill whiny rages, his desperate attempts at humor. This is a performance of a man who knows exactly how repellent he is, and makes no apologies for it.
(this doesn't feel finished but I have to get up early....perhaps I'll go back to it...probably not)