Considering the triumph of their first effort, the witty and sublime into-the- night talkfest My Dinner With Andre (1981), it’s amazing it has taken Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, and director Louis Malle more than 10 years to collaborate again. It was worth the wait, though. The three have now brought forth Vanya on 42nd Street, an update of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that is so innovative yet pure, so searching in its very simplicity, that I felt as if I were seeing Chekhov’s masterpiece — really seeing it — for the first time.
The movie opens with documentary images of Times Square, out of which we quickly divine a familiar, pudgy face. It’s Wallace Shawn, the bald elf, weary and middle-aged now, calmly eating a knish on 42nd Street. A few other actors greet him on the sidewalk, and then they proceed to enter a darkly cavernous, rubble-strewn Gothic theater — it looks like a fabulous ruin out of Blade Runner — where, following a few minutes of chitchat, they commence a full-length rehearsal of Uncle Vanya. There is no stage, no real sets (just a few tables and chairs), and the actors are dressed in the same casual street clothes they were wearing when they walked in.
A gimmick? Yes, and something more. What Malle (who directed the film), Gregory (who staged the production), and Shawn (who plays the title role) have done is to burn away the melancholy 19th-century dullness that virtually defines productions of this play. The performers here don’t look or behave like ”Chekhov characters.” They’re acting, to be sure, but they’re also themselves — they read the author’s words with all the wit, narcissism, and painfully exposed nerves, the cocky, ironic sensuality, of their late-20th-century personalities. The result is that Chekhov’s fractious, desperate lives are seen with a new, Altman-like intimacy. Freed from its preindustrial Russian roots, the play’s bedrock devastation — its sense of people trapped between the torpid reality of their lives and the longings of their heart — becomes our devastation, a prophetic reminder of the barrenness of life without love. In a uniformly superb cast, two performers achieve greatness: Julianne Moore, from Short Cuts, who makes the beautiful Yelena radiant and tender, with a shimmering awareness of where her options begin and end; and Shawn, who in the most improbably moving performance I’ve seen all year digs into the very soul of his Wally Shawn-ness, finding an ardent erotic passion there, a cleansing bitterness and despair. A