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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Chekhov plays the Big Apple.

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) on IMDb

Plot Overview

water coolerA crowd scene in NYC divulges a motley assortment of characters converging on the then-abandoned New Amsterdam Theater on W. 42nd St. where they'll do a run-through of Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov's play, “Uncle Vanya.” Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) was a famed Russian play­wright whose plays concerned difficulties in communication. The out­side crowd includes a fair number of blacks—there was no black culture in Old Russia, because they had no blacks—and a neigh­boring establishment advertising: LIVE NUDES—there were no strip joints in Old Russia, because the Church would not have allowed them.

They can't use the stage, because rats have eaten through the ropes, and the crumbling roof has to be under­girded with canvas. Lack of stage props and costumes results in a cozy, intimate setting for dialogue that can only be distinguished from real life by the theatrical lines they use. Instead of the samovar the play talks about, Vanya uses water poured into a mug labeled: “I <heartNY,” reminding us of the larger setting.

The play itself takes place on a wooded estate where the patriarch Professor Serybryakov (George Gaynes) lives with his young second wife Yelena (Julianne Moore), the Professor's daughter from his first marriage Sonya (Brooke Smith), Professor Serybryakov's brother-in-law from the first marriage Vanya (Wallace Shawn), Maman (Lynn Cohen), and Nanny (Phoebe Brand). They are visited regularly by a local Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine).

A couple of the women and a couple of the men hold largely unreciprocated love interests in the opposite sexes there. How they all manage to determine where they stand, live with their disappointments, and still think well of the others is the thrust of the play. Per­forming it in a theatre on 42nd St. provides a contrast in communication styles. If either of the two men had gone into the next-door nudie salon and tried to get physical with one of the women there with­out negotiating some­thing first—what worked perfectly well in the play—, he would have been summarily thrown out on his ear. If a plain women in the play had used as much circumlocution trying to make a move on a man out­side as she did inside, she wouldn't have been under­stood at all in that street culture. Different times, different places.


I was unable to interest anyone in seeing this Chekhov play knock-off with me, but on my way to the University library to check it out, I ran into Tommy the Commie who raved about it and accompanied me to the edge of the U. He could go no farther because he'd been banned from campus for agitating. I'm also a townie, with low status in that academic setting, so I had to mind my p's and q's. Fact is the student conduct code had been revamped a while back to reflect modern times, and I have a copy of their Get Explicit 101 Hand­book, Fourth Edition a friend had found on the ground. Let's see how it compares to Chekhov:

“By participating in these workshops you contribute to the [name of University undecipherable]'s goal of a safer and healthier community. We live in a complicated world full of messages about what sex should be. We … will explore some healthy and unhealthy norms about sex, how to communicate what we want, how to navigate the power dynamics of our daily lives, and how to step in if we see others acting in a disrespectful or unsafe way” (2). What worked—and worked well—in Chekhov's world would not have worked so well in modern NYC and vice versa.

Sexual misconduct is defined as: “2. Non-consensual personal contact that occurs when a student subjects another person to contact of a sexual nature when a reasonable person would know that such contact would cause emotional distress: a. without having first obtained explicit consent” (9). This happened at least twice in the play when a man either attempts to or succeeds in stealing a kiss from a reluctant female who despite her immediate discomfort (“You disgust me”) either soon gets over it or comes back for more. Such “misconduct” was also testified against in national news when a then fifteen-year-old girl thirty-six years ago or so now remembers an upper­class­man having tried to or succeeding in copping a feel of her bee stings on an upstairs bed at a party … and she still hasn't gotten over it.

Quick tips * Always express belief in the survivor” (11). The latter “survivor” above is implicitly believed by many even though the FBI was unable to find any corroborating witnesses and her story had holes in it. By contrast, in the 1940 movie “His Girl Friday,” a jealous ex-husband, as a delaying tactic, sicks a female agent provocateur on his ex-wife's fiancé waiting in a car to take her away, and he is arrested for “mashing.” Nobody in the theater believes that female “victim.”

EXAMPLES “As a Christian, it's expected that I will not have sex until marriage. I agree with this expectation because I care about my faith and want to wait until marriage to experience sex. It's hard when people think I'm only doing this because I'm 'brain­washed,' but I will always remind people that just because I'm religious doesn't mean my choices aren't my own” (19). In the Old Russia of Chekhov, the whole culture (if not every individual in it) was Christian, so there wasn't so much pressure about the small, inconsequential stuff that wouldn't lead to having sex any­way. That was reserved for a man and his woman in marriage. In the play people suffered being victims of life but lived (“We'll bear up”) in hope of a righteous resurrection. (Luke 17:7-10) “But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready where­with I may sup, and gird thy­self, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and after­ward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So like­wise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

Production Values

This classic, “” (1994) was directed by Louis Malle. It was based on a David Mamet version of Anton Chekhov's play, “Uncle Vanya.” Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and Louis Malle brought it to the movie screen. It stars Wallace Shawn, Phoebe Brand, and George Gaynes. The acting was faultless given that they were working from a translation.

MPAA rated it PG for thematic material. It employed superior cinema­tog­raphy by Haskell Wexler. It's a strange amalgam of stage play and celluloid medium, which works handily.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

Having suffered through the rancor of the Bret Kavanaugh hearings, I sought out a Chekhov film for a tonic of more peace­ful communications. Fortunately, there wasn't a line of fellow sufferers ahead of me to check it out. Where were they? Oh, they're lining up to register to vote. One can only hope they under­stand the issues. All Chekhov plays are educational, this one not the least.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Suitability for children: Suitable for children with guidance. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Special effects: Well, at least you can't see the strings. Overall movie rating: Five stars out of five.