The “Art of Being”

The New York Times

February 24, 2012

‘Vanya,’ Theater and Art of Being


IT’S probably not a good idea to open a conversation with a theater director by telling him that your immediate reaction to seeing actors onstage is always “Oh, come off it.”

Yet when I confessed this to André Gregory, he said: “That’s my problem too. It’s why I go to the theater so rarely.” Which makes sense. Nothing in Mr. Gregory’s work, from the productions that dissolve the boundary created by the footlights to the practice of rehearsing plays for years — allowing actors to live in the roles before performing them for small invited audiences — suggests a director satisfied with the artificiality of the view through the proscenium arch.

In “Vanya on 42nd Street,” Louis Malle’s 1994 film of Mr. Gregory’s Chekhov production, featuring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore, Mr. Gregory’s determination to get his actors not to act but simply to be resulted in performances that are both naturalistic and lyrical. And “Vanya,” being released in a restored DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion on Tuesday, is perhaps the most relaxed film version of any great theater work. “A groundbreaking element of it being filmed,” Mr. Gregory, 77, said in a recent interview in his Manhattan home, “was to show that Chekhov cannot be performed for a large audience because then it’s being performed.” The real drama in Chekhov, Mr. Gregory said, comes from seeing “what it feels like to live a life.” He compares the plot to Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. One of the main threads is whether Yelena (Ms. Moore), the beautiful young wife of the overbearing professor Serebryakov (George Gaynes) will give into the seductions of Astrov (Larry Pine), the doctor who longs for her. “The plot is a MacGuffin for making you think you’re in a play,” he said. “But it’s not a play. I think that’s what’s so radical about it. It’s all about being there, the nature of being there.”

This play that is not a play with actors who aren’t acting was almost not a production and almost not a film. In the beginning Mr. Gregory and his cast made a pact never to perform the play and spent most of the first few years of rehearsal — there were four in all — working on individual scenes and improvising. Brooke Smith, who plays Sonya, the professor’s plain daughter, aching with unrequited love for Astrov, remembers Mr. Gregory challenging her to bore him, claiming it couldn’t be done. “I thought, no, that’s impossible,” she said. “But I think he’s right. Because I did some really boring improvs, and he’d just be laughing.”

Mr. Gregory’s determination not to perform began to waver after his longtime designer, Eugene Lee, showed him the Victory Theater (then shuttered, now home to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”). Mr. Gregory loved the space so much that he persuaded his actors to do 12 run-throughs, to which each of them could invite two loved ones. After pressure from those loved ones, stunned by what they had seen, the actors did a five-week run to which each actor could invite four friends. “It became a huge hit because nobody could get into it,” Mr. Gregory said. The lucky ones who did included Robert Altman, Mike Nichols and Susan Sontag, who grabbed Ms. Smith after a performance, Ms. Smith recalled, and said: “You know why that doctor didn’t like you? Because you’re a strong, beautiful woman. That’s why.”

Another audience member was Malle, who had directed Mr. Gregory in “My Dinner With Andre” but initially turned down Mr. Gregory’s request to document the production. A few years later Malle, suffering from heart problems and looking for a small-scale project, agreed to make the film if Mr. Gregory could raise the $900,000 budget in three weeks. The way he managed that feat, “will sound like a ‘My Dinner with Andre’ story,” Mr. Gregory said with a grin that looks as if the Cheshire Cat had mated with Edward Everett Horton. It does. Mr. Gregory traveled to Germany to pray with an Indian guru named Mother Meera. He had read a book of her sayings suggesting that rather than praying for things on the scale of enlightenment, supplicants should  “come to the mother the way you would as a child on Christmas morning and ask for what you want in your Christmas stocking,” he said. He prayed for $500,000, and “a hot Saturday-night date because my wife died three years earlier.”

Stopping in Paris on the way back to New York he encountered an attractive woman writing in a cafe. He was trying to work up the nerve to start a conversation when she touched his arm and asked, “What do you think I’m writing?” It turns out she was translating Mr. Shawn’s latest play. “So I stayed in Paris for three extra days,” Mr. Gregory said, “and then when I came back to New York, the money poured out of the walls.”

Filming was conducted for two weeks in the New Amsterdam, at the time another of 42nd Street’s boarded-up theaters. The crumbling beauty of the space imparts a feeling both of fragility and immediacy. Malle ends “My Dinner With Andre” with footage of Manhattan streets at night seen from the windows of a moving cab, a way of returning the viewer gently to the world. In “Vanya” he reverses the process, opening with footage of the actors emerging from the subway, assembling inside the theater and greeting one another.

Mr. Shawn stretches to take a nap. When he awakes, he’ll be Vanya, the country estate overseer. Mr. Pine and Phoebe Brand (a founding member of the Group Theater) sit at a table discussing the plays Mr. Pine is rehearsing simultaneously and, without putting on costumes or signaling that they’ve begun acting, they become the old Nanny and Astrov. The play, almost without our realizing it, has started.

The critic Steve Vineberg, who contributed an essay to the Criterion release, said in an interview, “I assume that when you’ve been playing a role in rehearsal, on and off, for years, you stop worrying about making it look good; you’re concerned with finding the levels of experience in the role that aren’t easily seen.” He cited the scene in which Ms. Moore’s Yelena signals her sexual interest in her much older husband, only to have him reject her because he can’t imagine her desire is real. “That’s so much more interesting than the usual way of playing Yelena,” Mr. Vineberg said, “that she’s young and beautiful and has thrown herself away on a man twice her age who can’t possibly satisfy her.”

Malle died, at 63, the year after the film was released. He has often been shabbily treated by critics who mistake the confidence of early films like “Elevator to the Gallows” and “The Fire Within” for empty slickness and for the restless variety of his output for proof that his films lacked personal commitment. It didn’t help that his films were infrequently revived and many are unavailable on home video.

The Criterion Collection has taken steps to correct that, releasing not just “Vanya” but, among other titles, Malle’s six-part documentary “Phantom India” and restorations of other films including “Lacombe, Lucien.” Peter Becker, president of Criterion, is passionate about his company’s commitment to Malle.

“He was not afraid to fail, to try something different with each new film,” Mr. Becker said. “It didn’t need to look like a Louis Malle film. It looked like it needed to be.”

A director determined to take that approach to each project, Mr. Gregory talks of tearing down the edifice that accretes around classics, which makes works spoken of as universal feel inaccessible to people: “My task is to dissolve the stereotype and find what’s really under the skin.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 and is filed under Food for Thought. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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