Under the direction of Andre Gregory, actors in street clothes gather in a relic of a theater to perform a David Mamet translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for a small invited audience. A snob stunt? Try unforgettable; at least it was three years ago when a vivid cast, headed by Wallace Shawn as Vanya, brought the 1899 Russian play a hot-damn urgency.
It shouldn’t work as a film. But director Louis Malle, who made spirited cinema of Shawn and Gregory dining out in My Dinner With Andre, rises to the challenge. Vanya is magic. Malle shows us the tumult of Times Square outside the theater, and Mamet hauls that clamoring spirit into his translation. Shawn’s bristling Vanya spits contempt at his aging professor brother-in-law (George Gaynes) for marrying the beautiful Yelena (the superb Julianne Moore) and squandering funds from the family estate. Homelessness is a possibility for Vanya and his plain, diligent niece Sonya (Brooke Smith). Shawn and Gaynes tangle to devastating effect. But it’s the luminous Smith who pierces the heart. The light fading in Sonya’s eyes at rejection from Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine) is also the fading of possibility. But the light doesn’t go out. This live-wire Vanya, freshly observed for the ’90s, is fiercely funny, touching and vital.