It is less of a production than a rehearsed and organized reading. There are no proper costumes, stage sets or props to be found. And only those who volunteered their time or were personally invited are permitted to step into the theater and pay respect to Chekov and Vanya, as adapted by David Mamet.
Starting in the late ‘80s, theater director/writer Andre Gregory assembled a troupe of actors to perform Vanya at the Victory Theater, settled across the street from the New Amsterdam. In 1991, Gregory asked Malle, who had directed Gregory and Wallace Shawn in the conversational, play-like My Dinner with Andre (1981), to film the actors: Shawn as Vanya, Julianne Moore as Yelena, Larry Pine as Dr. Astrov, Brooke Smith as Sonya, George Gaynes as Serebryakov, Lynn Cohen as Maman, Phoebe Brand as Marina, Jerry Mayer as Waffles, Madhur Jaffrey as Mrs. Chao, and Oren Moverman as Flip Innunu. The result, Vanya on 42nd Street, was shot in two weeks and turned out to be Malle’s final film.
Some will wonder, What is the point? It may be to preserve that brief moment when a group of actors in love with the art left all of the glitz to everyone else and stripped down to the essentials. Though I still question whether or not capturing the reading on celluloid doesn’t negate the group’s initial purpose, one thing is sure: Vanya on 42nd Street is an interesting and liberating experiment, free from the expected demands and budget of both theater and film.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 20-page booklet featuring an essay titled “An American Vanya” by critic Steven Vineberg and an on-set report by film critic Amy Taubin.