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Seedy N.Y. Setting Suits Latest 'Vanya'

November 06, 1994|Susanne C. Stahley

NEW YORK — "You have the feeling in the movie of some strange band of eccentric lunatics who is hiding in this odd, wondrous deteriorating place to make something that they still care about, love about and are passionate about."

Andre Gregory is describing the characters of Louis Malle's newest film, "Vanya on 42nd Street," a thoroughly postmodern treatment of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," which opened Friday. But Gregory, of Malle's "My Dinner With Andre" fame, is the director of the play- within- the- movie, and might just as well have been describing the motley crew of select visitors to the set on the last day of shooting.

"Vanya on 42nd Street" was shot in New York in a breathtaking 11 shooting days in the spectacularly decrepit New Amsterdam Theater on seedy 42nd Street, just off Times Square. Built in 1903, the crumbling New Amsterdam was once the baroquely ornate showcase for the "Ziegfeld Follies" and, much later, a porno theater; abandoned for 40 years and now closed to the public, it is a maze of peeling gold gilt, gaping second-story doorways arching to nowhere, and intricately stained, rain-soaked walls.

There may be hope for the Art Nouveau masterpiece--Disney has plans to renovate it, an effort that could help jump-start a long-hoped-for rebirth of the city's blighted theater district.


On this chilly May day, though, renovation is but a dim promise. Halfway through this afternoon's filming, the nonplussed lighting crew dodges a sudden shower of plaster falling from a huge bas-relief flower bud precariously drooping from the balcony ceiling. Later, Gregory remarks on the choice of location, which he and Malle loved from the minute they saw it. "If Brian De Palma made a movie about 'Phantom of the Opera,' " Gregory says, "this is where it would take place." (Gregory apparently forgot De Palma's 1974 rock version of "Phantom," called "Phantom of the Paradise.")

"Vanya on 42nd Street" is based on Gregory's unusual staging of Chekhov's classic, from a modern adaptation written by David Mamet. The film reunites Malle and Gregory with fellow "My Dinner With Andre" collaborator Wallace Shawn, in the title role, as well as most of the original cast from Gregory's production, including Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith and Larry Pine.

The play was staged sporadically from 1989 to '92--when the actors could snatch a week or two free from their work in features or television. Rehearsals began in a loft, then moved to the decaying Victory Theater, just down the street from the New Amsterdam.

Malle was one of a select group of devotees of Gregory's staging, in which the audience sat on the stage, carrying their chairs as they followed the actors around the set, even sitting across from them at a table in some scenes. The play was staged as an open rehearsal, so that neither audience nor actors knew exactly what would happen that night, creating what Gregory calls an "atmosphere, as in life, of dangerous spontaneity."

The audience was a handpicked group of friends and colleagues of the cast and stage crew. Among them, directors Robert Altman, Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn all agreed that the adaptation would make a "phenomenal" movie. (Altman cast Julianne Moore in "Short Cuts" after seeing her play Yelena.)

But Gregory couldn't imagine "any other director who would do this as Louis Malle would. Part of it was that he was so passionate and loved it, and he so truly understood it." Malle brought in Fred Berner ("Alamo Bay") as producer and Declan Quinn ("Ballad of Little Jo") as cinematographer.

B ut perhaps the most compel ling screen presence is that of the New Amsterdam itself, whose crumbling ceiling, rotting beams and vast empty spaces--it is 10 stories high--loom over the activities onstage with as much intensity as any of the performers.

Gregory acknowledged that the intensity of the film's shooting schedule helped bring the immediacy of the stage performances to the camera. "The play has a very strong sense of time is passing . . . which is heightened in the film by the sense of how are we ever going to finish this?"

That question hovers over the cast and crew tonight, the last night of filming. Louis Malle is dressed in a red down vest and duckbill hat against the chill in the unheated New Amsterdam, his unshaven face haggard.

Despite the schedule, Malle maintains his famous calm on the set, meticulously blocking every move by every character. Malle shot the scenes in succession, to help the actors maintain emotional continuity. Setting up for the crucial last scene--with its litany of restless exits and entrances--has taken hours. Malle snaps only once, actually during a picture-taking break off the set that takes too long.

In "Vanya," Gregory plays himself, the stage director. Although we never see him actually working with the actors in the film, he appears in the opening scene on the gritty wintry street outside the theater, and at other points in the background as the drama unfolds.

"It was an amazing collaboration (between Gregory as the stage director and Malle as the film's director) because we never had a disagreement, which given the fact that we were shooting under such pressure and that we are both such strong directors is a kind of miracle. Quite naturally, it fell into my directing the actors and his setting up the camera shots."

In effect, the actors had been rehearsing since 1989. Gregory describes his original direction of the play as "referential to film," in that audience members sitting across from actors are like cameras, "shooting where they wanted to look, and always looking in close-up."

Malle's challenge was to reverse the coin and make a film that was referential to theater. Gregory believes the behind-the-scenes approach will have great popular appeal. "I think audiences love that backstage feeling."*

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