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Vanya on 42nd Street


‘…Mamet and Malle’s fresh take is a good example of how sweetly a classic text can sing when done with genuine care, attention and sensitivity…’

That’s 42nd and 8th, to be precise. Louis Malle’s spry and witty adaptation of Chekhov’s chestnut Uncle Vanya was filmed in the then-derelict New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. That theatre has been restored, and is currently platforming the musical version of Disney’s Aladdin, which puts a fresh spin on this 1992 film, which seeks cultural analogues within the past while David Mamet’s script is reworking the Russian’s prose for the 1990’s. Vanya on 42nd Street has one of the great openings; we see modern crowds in and around New York’s Times Square, and zero in on our performers, stepping out of cars, sharing fast food, chatting away before the rhythm of the conversation somehow segues into Chekhov’s dialogue, skilfully reworked by Mamet, whose grip of the vernacular is beyond question. We’re looking at a rehearsal of the play, in modern clothes, yet the antique nature of the dilapidated theatre provides a pertinent, apposite background.

‘ It’s perfect weather for suicide’ proclaims Vanya (Wallace Shawn), and it’s up to us to use our imagination to visualise that ‘forests embellish the land’ Translation can be tricky, but Mamet’s strict sense of purpose provides luminous results; we get to know the various characters gathered in a rural estate, and understand the tensions between them as things change, and it’s easy to agree with Vanya’s line ‘this is not a happy home.’ as the modern world threatens to overturn the atrophied applecart of their everyday domestic lives. Like Mike Figgis’s underrated version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, somehow making the focus more intense than theatre works for a potentially dusty text.

Vanya on 42nd Street was an unexpected art-house hit back in the day, with a family cast to die for, and help dispell any rust. There’s an early role for Julianne Moore as Yelena providing an exploitable commercial asset for marketing purposes; she’s great here, but Brooke Smith is every bit as good as Sonya. And there’s a pop-culture pleasure in seeing George Gaynes ideally cast as patriarchal lynchpin Prof. Serebryakov; his stern presence can’t help but be undercut by his role as Commander Lassard in the Police Academy movies, an exposure that must have been a blessing and a curse to the stalwart Broadway actor.

‘I could have been the new Dostoyevsky,’ moans Vanya as his plans fall in ribbons; fortunately Mamet’s juices are clearly pumping as he manages the difficult trick of making Chekhov’s text play cinematically, with Malle favouring intense close-ups, and even an informal break where we can see the cast grab some nosebag and chatter. ‘All we can do is live …we will live submissively,’ is the takeaway, and while cinema hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for adaptations, Mamet and Malle’s fresh take is a good example of how sweetly a classic text can sing when done with genuine care, attention and sensitivity.


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  1. Wasn’t aware of this though I’ve seen most of Malle’s films and have a couple of box sets. Not sure Checkov needs much reworking even by someone as talented as Mamet. Mamet is so distinctive I’d worry he would smother the other writer.

  2. Does Moore find Checkhov’s gun and use it on Uncle Vanya? Because if you find a Checkhov’s gun, you know the rule, you have to use it.

  3. I was walking through Times Square in 1994. I wonder if I wandered into any of the shots.

    I’d forgotten about this and went to put a request in for it at the library but they don’t have it. Which seemed a little strange.

    • Why is that strange?

      Yes, I could see you clearly in the opening scenes, breathtaking.

      • The library usually has stuff like that covered.

        I hope I wasn’t wearing my shiny silver pants. Though I did get a lot of compliments on them back in the day.

        • No, but those leather chaps are quite something. The feather boa adds a certain something.

          First time I saw this was on a VHS rented from a Montague Street video shop in Brooklyn Heights. Thought it was the best Chekhov I’d seen, and probably still is. Should be something seen in public libraries; I rewatched it on You Tube.

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