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‘Vanya on 42nd Street’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 21, 1994

At the beginning of Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street," members of a theatrical cast struggle through the noisy bustle of Times Square on their way to a rehearsal of Anton Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya." Even before the run-through begins, the performers complain that they are burned out, overworked, too tired to carry on.

The fatigued Larry Pine, who plays the alcoholic Dr. Astrov, kvetches to Phoebe Brand, who plays the nanny Marina, that he has three plays in rehearsal at once. But before his monologue is over, the weariness of the actor imperceptibly becomes the weariness of the doctor. With this subtle shift in perspective, the film's miraculously imaginative reading of Chekhov's play gets under way.

The appeal of David Mamet's adaptation of the play, which theater director Andre Gregory has been staging on and off since 1989, lies not in its conceptual brilliance, but in the way that he -- and director Malle -- have stripped away the theatrical artifice to cut straight to the soul of the drama.

The result is spare and emotionally direct. Dressed in their street clothes and still clutching cups of take-out coffee, the actors slide effortlessly into character, transforming the ruins of the abandoned theater around them into an intimate arena for revelation and confession. Applying a deceptively simple approach to their characters, these stunning performers speak of their dashed hopes and unrequited affections with a combination of bitterness and resignation.

Vanya (Wallace Shawn), for example, has sacrificed his own chance for intellectual distinction by devoting himself tirelessly to the labors of his father-in-law, Serybryakov (George Gaynes), a scholar whose career never took off in the way his family had hoped. Vanya is a defeated figure with nothing to live for, and at times Shawn's portrayal of the character's anger is so savage that it verges on the insane. Like his sister, Sonya (Brooke Smith), Vanya has been sucked dry by his service to his father, and, as a result, he spends most of his evenings getting drunk with Astrov, who is nursing a mad crush on Yelena (Julianne Moore), the aging professor's beautiful young wife.

The virtuosity of these performances is in their restraint. Sitting alone with Yelena, Vanya spouts off about the way the professor has ruined his life, and in the process he confesses his love for her. But Yelena only breaks into girlish giggles at the spectacle of this ineffectual man baring his soul to her.

With her dazzling copper hair and milky-pale complexion, Moore certainly looks like the sort of woman who effortlessly drives men to distraction. Though she married the professor for love, the years of listening to his medical complaints and the long chronicles of failures have left her indolent and bored. Both Vanya and the doctor profess their love for her, but she remains unmoved. She just can't be bothered.

Her stepdaughter, Sonya, on the other hand, is so caught up in trying to keep the estate afloat that she has neglected her own needs. Painfully aware of her own plainness, Sonya has almost given up hope of finding a husband. But while Astrov pines for Yelena, Sonya pines for Astrov. She finds his farsighted theories about man and nature captivating and optimistic. As Smith plays her, Sonya is the essence of soulful perseverance.

All the performances in this stunning production are extraordinary, but somehow Smith -- who is perhaps best known as the girl at the bottom of the pit in "The Silence of the Lambs" -- rises above the rest. In the scene where she confesses her love for Astrov to Yelena, she speaks of his virtues with such infatuated enthusiasm that the years of disappointment seem to melt away.

Unfortunately, though, Astrov is too taken with Yelena to realize that she even exists -- but then that's the way things go with Chekhov. In terms of dramatic action, almost nothing happens, and yet Malle's fluid, invisible style carries us deep into the hearts and minds of these characters. He and Gregory and their sublime cast have remade a classic for our time.

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