Sunday, January 15, 2012

Exporting Vanya

It was a return to Chekhov over the weekend as I watched Vanya of 42nd Street, an interesting adaptation of the play by David Mamet filtered through the lens of Louis Malle.  I had seen it years ago and had remembered it fondly.  It was nice not to be disappointed the second time around.

The production has its flaws.  I think it was a little too melodramatic at times but Wallace Shawn is good as Vanya.  Larry Pines is excellent as Astrov and Julianne Moore simply divine as Yelena.  The supporting cast is filled out nicely with George Gaynes providing the necessary aplomb to the role of Serybryakov.

There is a certain amount of overlap in Chekhov's plays but it was interesting to see that Uncle Vanya is an adaptation of an earlier play, The Wood Demon, with several of the same characters and much of the same dialog.  Chekhov was never satisfied with his earlier play and chose to rework it.  He had fallen under the spell of Tolstoyism during the writing of The Wood Demon and by 1897 had second thoughts about the idealism Tolstoy inspired.

Astrov is a carry over of Krushchov, the good doctor who has such a great interest in maintaining the nation's forests for the sake of posterity.  But, in Uncle Vanya, Astrov questions whether it is all worth it.  He makes a speech very similar to Krushchov in the first act, extolling the virtues of forest management, but by the third act he makes it clear to Yelena in a set of maps that it is a losing proposition.  He notes that if progress had resulted in better roads, schools and the general welfare of the people, he could justify the despoiling that had taken place in their region, but all he sees is more poverty.  Perhaps Chekhov's own disillusionment is reflected through the once starry-eyed Astrov.

Eventually, Astrov, like Vanya and Sofiya, returns to his work after the professor and his lovely wife leave for a remote city where he hopes to settle into retirement.  As with The Cherry Orchard, the important thing is to accept your condition in life.

Chekhov's plays are more a vehicle to vent anxieties than a search for some great dramatic victory or great truth.  In many cases, his plays were intended as social comedies, poking fun at all the frustrated ambitions of living on country estates, detached from the cultural and intellectual hubs of Moscow and Petersburg.  Whatever talents his characters have are minimal, yet they aspire for something more than their work-a-day lives, which is why audiences were drawn to his plays, as they voiced many of the same anxieties they felt.  This is especially the case with Uncle Vanya, one of his most enduring plays.

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