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“I think that movie directing and theater directing are completely different,” says Andre Gregory, who’s been brought to Washington to protest that he could never have filmed Vanya on 42nd Street. The movie was directed by Louis Malle, but it is a record of Gregory’s non-production of a David Mamet update of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which reunited Gregory with his My Dinner With Andre co-star Wallace Shawn, who plays the title role.
Gregory’s Vanya was a non-production because it was “an ongoing rehearsal for a production that was never going to happen.” Only a few invited guests were admitted to the performances, which took place in abandoned theaters near Times Square. “We did it strictly for the love of doing it,” says Gregory.
The project was “unique,” the director beams, yet “not so unusual.”
“Ninety-four percent of Actors’ Equity is out of work,” he notes. “They spend their time not acting. And if you’re successful, 90 percent of the time you’re acting in junk.”
Providing interesting roles in a play that will never have a paying audience, Gregory argues, satisfies actors’ sometimes conflicting needs to create and to eat. “You have to work, you have to have dreams,” he says. In his Vanya, “the Wally character and the Andre character”—the pragmatist and the mystic from Dinner—“are joined.”
By reconvening the company so that its work could be filmed by Malle, Gregory brought Vanya to an audience potentially much larger than any a stage production might reach. This may not be ironic, however, since Gregory concedes that working for a small audience led to unusually intimate performances. “That of course is movie acting,” he says. “So maybe I wanted it to be a movie all along.”
Though Gregory has played numerous character roles in films since Dinner, he claims no insight into Hollywood’s ways. Nonetheless, like a high-concept studio dealmaker, Gregory has beaten his rivals to U.S. screens; his Vanya is but one of five current films that adapt, sometimes quite loosely, Chekhov’s play. (The other four are Polish, Swedish, Welsh, and Australian.)
“They’re not doing any other Chekhov plays,” Gregory notes, suggesting that Vanya is the most contemporary of the playwright’s works. “The fact that it’s a Chekhov play gets in the way of people seeing it as a movie about life today.”
Shawn, Gregory explains, sees the play as helping to explain recent political tumult in the U.S. “Wally says [Vanya’s] family is economically marginal—they’re middle-class Americans.”
“Americans are really angry. But we don’t know why we’re angry,” the director adds. “These times are hopeless times.”
Gregory himself sometimes talks like an angry man, although his tone is entirely amiable. One target of his wrath is hardly unexpected: Hollywood, which includes both Disney—whose executives asked to screen Vanya, but only so they could see what the New Amsterdam Theater looked like before they renovated it for Beauty and the Beast—and Quentin Tarantino.
Gregory says he found Pulp Fiction “brilliantly made” and “terrifying,” perhaps because he considers it as amoral as the man who recently beat him with a chain on the streets of Manhattan. “In his eyes, I saw Pulp Fiction,” says Gregory of his attacker.
“He should be brought into court for psychic mugging,” suggests the director of Tarantino, chuckling with satisfaction as he recounts how Vanya star Brooke Smith cried, “No more Tarantinos!,” when accepting an award at a European film festival. (As a veteran of The Silence of the Lambs, though, Smith herself might qualify as an unindicted co-conspirator in psychic mugging.)
Despite its potential as a rebuke to Tarantino and an explication of the rise of Newt Gingrich, Vanya on 42nd Street also has a timeless quality—at least as timeless as 19th-century European nihilism and early-20th-century theater of the absurd. “One of the main questions of Vanya is, ‘Am I wasting my life?,’ ” says Gregory, and that’s a query older than Bill Clinton.
Stripped of its usual costuming and set decoration, Gregory’s Vanya also makes a connection with one of the director’s other favorite playwrights. With its tension between everyday life and possibilities offered by visitors who disrupt that existence, it’s offered, this Vanya has a certain resemblance to Waiting for Godot.
“For me, it’s Endgame,” says Gregory, clearly delighted to make the comparison. “I would describe Beckett as Chekhov without furniture. And since we don’t have much furniture, it gets pretty close to Beckett.”
Gregory doesn’t see Beckett’s work as despairing, nor does he consider the briefly stirred Vanya’s ultimate return to his previous life a defeat. “The play asks, “What do we do?,” and I think it has an answer.” Describing his devastation at the death of his wife of 33 years, Gregory sounds like “the Andre Character” of Dinner: “If you can go to the bottom of the pain, you can come out the other side. Honesty is the beginning of transformation.”
But then in making Vanya on 42nd Street “the Wally character and the Andre character are joined,” so Greg