Mamet at the Movies

From stage to film, David Mamet is a mixed message

Where Oleanna suffers from too much Mamet, Vanya on 42nd Street glories in shared artistic responsibilities. Filmed by Louis Malle as a play rehearsal, the production dates back to 1989, when Andre Gregory directed the cast for small, private audiences. What this means is that Vanya retains the understated artistry of an earlier Malle-Gregory-Shawn collaboration, My Dinner With Andre, even though here Gregory, as stage director, has little to do on-screen except watch, rapturously and proudly, the terrific acting he's prompted, most notably Moore's radiant yet languid Yelena, Pine's enlightened yet unheeding Astrov and Smith's noble yet heartbreaking Sonya. After years of honing their parts, these actors don't even need costumes, performing instead in street clothes, with barely a prop.

Set in New York's rundown New Amsterdam Theater in such a remarkable way that the building's natural dilapidation comes to suggest an eroding Russian country estate, Vanya is beautifully filmed, with shots that make Moore's red hair seem uncommonly luminous and darkened corners that somehow reveal vast expanses of soul. Vanya is as rarefied as Oleanna is heavy-handed. Stripped of everything except the essence of feeling through unadorned language, Vanya makes Oleanna's war of words seem like artificial maneuvers.

What we see in Vanya is said to be a rehearsal (this is one of the film's few false notes), but it's Oleanna that needs work; in the former it might take a few minutes for us to get our bearings, but in the latter we never get situated. In Vanya, the participants arrive at the theater speaking a small talk that evolves effortlessly into updated Chekhov; in Oleanna, Mamet can't get beyond Mamet. How strange that one film, paced with immediacy, rivets, while the other, lumbering under thematics, repulses, for both reflect Yelena's ironic credo: "I think the truth, no matter how bad, is always better than an uncertainty." Or as John ironically observes, "We can only interpret the behavior of others through the screens we create."

Directed by David Mamet.
Not rated.
90 minutes.

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