In what would be Louis Malle’s final film, he reteamed with André Gregory and Wallace Shawn to film a spare, intimate staging of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Just as Malle lends a deft, non-intrusive hand to Gregory and Shawn’s conversation in My Dinner With Andre, here he captures a theatrical moment in amber, preserving it and allowing viewers a peek inside a robust creative process.
It’s not necessary to know the film’s backstory to appreciate its immediacy and recognize its success as a film and a piece of filmed theater that can’t simply be pigeonholed as either. But the history helps one understand why the film feels so special — it’s unadorned and unfussy, but it hardly feels tossed-off or casual.
Initially, Gregory, who plays himself as the director in the film, gathered a group of actors in New York City to workshop David Mamet’s translation of Uncle Vanya. The play was never meant to be performed publicly and never really was — each actor was allowed two invitations per performance after a long period of essentially staging it for themselves.
Malle’s film gives us a feeling of being one of those lucky few, as we amble alongside the actors walking through Manhattan and into what is now the New Amsterdam Theatre for a complete run-through rehearsal. The actors — among them, Shawn, Julianne Moore, George Gaynes, and Brooke Smith, all essentially playing themselves — and a few guests chitchat for a few moments before Malle slowly pans and we’ve nearly invisibly entered the play.
The very fact that Chekhov’s play is a masterpiece of existential paralysis and the performances — Shawn as the dissatisfied Vanya; Gaynes as the wealthy, successful brother-in-law, Moore as his much younger second wife and universal object of desire Yelena, Smith as the plain niece Sonya — are electric is enough to ensure that Vanya on 42nd Street is a monumental work. Mamet’s conversational adaptation and the stripped-down approach to costuming and set design (i.e. none) allow one to see into the heart of what makes Uncle Vanya a complex, fascinating examination of life, no matter if you’re in rural 19th Century Russia or a dilapidated Manhattan theater.