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THEATER : COMMENTARY : Anton Chekhov, Our Contemporary : Why is the fatalistic Russian so relevant in seemingly optimistic America? 'Uncle Vanya' holds the key.

August 06, 1995|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic.

W hile watching Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street"--an unusual filmed version of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" just released on video--I experienced an intense sensation that is probably familiar to anyone who has seen a well-acted Chekhov play.

Somewhere in the first 20 minutes of the story, I felt as if I had been endowed with a fantastic power. I was suddenly able to understand every crushed hope that made up the identities of characters who were doing nothing but having everyday conversations in the midst of uneventful, provincial lives.

This mesmerizing sensation is a Chekhov high, and you get it when actors are doing his work just right, as they do in "Vanya on 42nd Street." I was not alone in my enthusiasm for the film. Stanley Kauffmann called it "exquisite" in the New Republic. The Times' Kenneth Turan said: "To watch this 'Vanya' is to marvel . . . at how much empathy [Chekhov] has for all of his characters." In New York magazine, James Kaplan wrote that the film "asserts the absolute relevance of Chekhov in '90s America."

Absolute relevance? By rights, Chekhov should be hopelessly out of vogue in this, the country of limitless possibility. He is the master of the fatalistic; he creates characters who are defined by and trapped in their circumstances, characters with virtually no capacity for change. Americans, instead, are supposed to fervently believe in the possibility of endless make-overs, a belief that sells our magazines and employs our plastic surgeons and infuses our art, from Walt Whitman to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even Quentin Tarantino's characters are capable of suddenly finding religion while carrying out a hired hit.

We embrace the millennial optimism of contemporary writers as different as John Bradshaw, Alice Walker and Tony Kushner. Kushner's "Angels in America" is filled with miracles and revelatory meetings that link people together and change them forever. The play ends on a kind of a rhapsody, delivered by a dying man who refuses despair. He blesses the audience by wishing us "more life." In Chekhov, Uncle Vanya estimates he has about 10 more years to go. His question is, "How will I get through them?"

Chekhov is Kushner's philosophical opposite. The endurance of his plays proves that we do not entirely believe in our national myths, in our ideals of self-improvement and self-determination. Chekhov's prominence is proof that our famous American optimism coexists with a secret respect for the more hidebound laws of reality, for the existence of our own limitations.

And Chekhov is all around us. Miramax has just released "Country Life," a Michael Blakemore film that sets "Uncle Vanya" in the Australian outback at the end of World War I. Last season, the Mark Taper Forum produced "The Wood Demon," an earlier version of "Vanya." And the remaining three major Chekhov plays have all been staged locally in the past year by highly regarded theaters: "The Cherry Orchard" at South Coast Repertory; "The Seagull" at the Matrix Theatre, and "Three Sisters" at A Noise Within. Cornerstone Theater created "A California Seagull," and now playwright Richard Alfieri has updated "Three Sisters" to present-day Manhattan in a play called "The Sisters," currently at the Pasadena Playhouse.

C hekhov's characters actually have something in common with Kushner's--they sense, often, the coming of a great change. In Kushner, though, "the great work begins"--in other words, the change is just around the corner. In Chekhov, change is something that might occur in the distant future, for people so far away they may as well be another race. "Uncle Vanya" shows a doctor imagining that, in a century or two, people will be free of the miseries of disease and poverty. For the religious, happiness can be attained only from beyond the grave, as a heavenly reward for hard labor here on Earth, as Sonya states at the end of "Uncle Vanya."

The here and now is permeated in Chekhov with the impossibility of human happiness. Life is littered with frailty, guilt and vice, and with the necessity of work, often dreary and meaningless. Work, as the unemployed Irina says in "Three Sisters," is the very meaning of life. When she actually must perform it, near the end of the play, she finds work to be exhausting and soul-numbing.

In "Vanya," Sonya imagines "a chain of days and endless nights . . . of working for others, and no rest until we die." And while we Americans like to believe in the possibility of constant improvement and spend our lives in the attempt to glamorize, overcome or cheat the dreariness of work, we also know we must return to it, as Vanya does at the end of the play.

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