Vanya on 42nd Street (1994): Louis Malle’s Version of Chekhov Play, Starring Juliann Moore

Sadly Louis Malle’s “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street,” a filming of a 1993 rehearsal of Chekhov’s famous play at New York’s New Amsterdam theater, became his swan song; he died in 1985.

As adapted by David Mamet, the treatment is precise, and the language alive and modern, beautifully brought to the big screen by Wallace Shawn in the title role, Julianne Moore as Yelena, and the other members of the troupe.

Reuniting with Andre Gregory thirteen years after their indie talkfest hit, “My Dinner With Andre,” a film totally based on witty dialogue (and drinking of good wine) between two men, Malle has unobtrusively recorded a theater piece that Gregory and this cast had rehearsed and performed for years.

The ensemble explores the essence of Chekhov’s seminal work through periodic rehearsals, improvisations and informal performances before live audiences at a decaying Times Square house. To make the film, the company moved to New Amsterdam, the former home of the “Ziegfeld Follies,” which has recently been renovated by Disney.

Appropriately, the shabby locale is congruent with the major themes of the play, which centers on Russian family around the turn of the century and deals with lost possibilities, thus permeating with a melancholy tone.

Shawn plays the middle-aged Vanya, who declares, “I’ve squandered my past on nonsense,” while pursuing the affections of the beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore), who is married to the aging scholar and writer Serybryakov (George Gaynes). Meanwhile, Sonya (Brooke Smith), Serybryakov’s daughter from a previous marriage, shows interest for a visitor to the estate, Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine).

Malle begins his movie on the busy Times Square streets, with the arrival of the actors, who immediately immerse themselves in the rehearsal process. As expected, Mamet’s dialogue is modern but not as acerbic as that of his plays. Production values of the film, which was shot in two weeks, are good, particularly Declan Quinn’s mobile camera, which accentuates the values of Chekhov’s absorbing monologues and dialogue through close-ups and other devices.

Brooke Smith and Larry Pine were nominated for supporting acting by the committee of the Independent Spirit Awards.

Running time: 119 Minutes.