Vanya on 42nd Street, based on Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted by David Mamet, directed by Louis Malle
Anton Chekhov is one of the best writers ever and Uncle Vanya in turn is one of the best plays that one can see, adapted here by David Mamet and with a screenplay by Andre Gregory, benefiting from a galaxy of stars.
The legendary Julianne Moore is Yelena, the outstanding Wallace Shawn has the role of Vanya, Larry Pine is excellent as Dr. Astrov, and Brooke Smith is a revelation in the role of Sonya and George Gaynes – known by this viewer from his Police Academy performances – acts as Serybryakov.
Russian writers are phenomenal, deep, radiant, insightful, magnificent, resplendent, glorious, especially Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The atmosphere of Vanya on 42nd Street can be depressing, sad, although the adaptation, with its modern take, the introduction that has the public on the streets of New York and the actors in casual clothes and not the traditional, heavy, perhaps stifling garb, works to make us see the eternal values, principles and beauty of the play.
As in the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in Uncle Vanya we have the feeling that the characters have to suffer – there is almost a sensation that there is something masochistic about some of them, although we can see that they are trapped, it was not so easy to say they had enough and just board a plane and bid farewell to a life of toil, in the boring countryside.
Suffering brings some redemption, as Sonya says to her uncle, at one point in the play-
“We have suffered, toiled every day and God will take pity… you and I uncle have worked here for the others…”
Sonya is in love with Doctor Astrov, but this feeling is destined to lead to suffering, for the man does not return the affection, indeed, when he is asked about love, he says that he has never loved someone, affection? Yes, he feels some affection for nanny and some of the simple people…
In fact, this character has a very modern position, we might envisage that Anton Chekhov, a doctor himself, identifies with the physician, who has some remarkable lines on…Climate Change!
It is indeed incredible to hear a personage from the nineteenth century show such an understanding of the dangers of the actions of humans, while we live in a world lead by a helpless narcissist who denies climate Change.
Doctor Astrov talks about man destroying the environment, the disappearance of wild life, the effect on the rivers, the beauty of the forest – he works to plant a forest, for he has notices the positive effect it has on people: how they are tenderer, humane near trees and forests, showing a remarkable talent for prophecy.
This and the other characters are not perfect, since the doctor is – like so many of his compatriots, alas- almost an alcoholic, and he has a feeling of guilt since he may have been responsible – he tends to think so – of the death of one of his patients and as he ignores Sonya, he becomes infatuated with married Yelena.
The latter is married with a preposterous, Trump-like character, self-absorbed, writer of valueless work, much older Serybryakov, who is so selfish that he wants to sell the property, for he is unsatisfied with the income and wants to acquire a villa in Finland and buy bonds.
This infuriates Uncle Vanya to the point of a nervous breakdown, because he points out when he hears the abusive plan that he has worked with Sonya for so many years, in depravation and cold, to send money to this ungrateful monster, after having renounced his share of the property in favor of his late sister, the first wife of this heartless, worthless tyrant.
Vanya is in love with Yelena and does not understand why she stays with this villain, faithful to a beast, a demon that has no idea about the suffering of others, occupied as he is with himself – the quintessential Donald.
Self-sacrifice is also represented by Waffles, one of the men in the mansion, who says that his wife has left him, on his wedding night, but he felt he has a duty- it is his honor, he declares! – To keep providing for this woman and the children she has had with someone else!
Sonya is unlucky to be a plain looking woman – indeed, modern day studies highlight how much better life is for the handsome, as they are favored in almost all walks of life – she says she hears women in church who pity her, for she is kind, but so unattractive and unhappy in her quest for the affection of the good doctor.
Doctor Astrov is attracted – love seems to be something alien for this personage – by Yelena, who tries to speak to him about Sonya, to see if the girl has any chance – she says that it would be better to know the truth, whatever it is, although the girl has doubts and thinks that maybe the alternative would be to entertain some hopes.
As Yelena asks about Sonya, the doctor says he has no feelings for her and then thinks he is trapped and this is a scheme, tries to kiss the woman, who actually responds, she feels something for the man and then Uncle Vanya walks in.
In mainstream works – especially in Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood and other woods- a happy conclusion is, if not always a must, at least in most cases, everyone wins and in some instances, there is some confusion as to what the hero would do.
In Uncle Vanya, everyone loses, expect perhaps the eternal Trump, who, although his project falls to pieces, in his self-absorbed manner, he would just move on, continue to receive the benefits of the work of his daughter, Sonya and his brother in law, Vanya, while the rest suffer, up to the point where the elusive God would welcome them to heaven.