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November 09, 2004

I Know This Saying. It Was Invented in Russia.

by Ron Hogan

My first exposure to Anton Chekhov in my senior year of high school went about as well as might be expected; I found The Cherry Orchard rather dull, "like one of those Woody Allen movies that aren't funny," as I complained at the time. I got smarter as I got older (part of it comes from not reading quite as much crap in my spare time as I did back then), and now Chekhov's one of my favorite playwrights. I know the fiction's out there, too, but I still haven't managed to get around to it yet--though the new Penguin Classics edition of The Shooting Party and a galley of the Everyman Library's The Complete Short Novels have turned up in my to-be-read pile within the last few months. So I was glad to see that the 92nd Street Y put on a tribute to Chekhov last night; I figured it'd be a good way to dip my toes in the water.

After a brief introduction by Unterberg Poetry Center director David Yezzi, who reminded us that "nothing much happens [in Chekhov's stories], except that one world ends and another begins," the evening began with a perfect example of that: the short story "The Schoolmistress," read by Janet Malcolm, who certainly knows a thing or two about Chekhov. Then Andre Gregory, who was still a bit torn up about the election--though jocularly so ("I did what our president always urges us to do; I went shopping")--but then segued into the idea that "in times like this, great art is a comfort." From there, he regaled us with the story of how Vanya on 42nd Street came about, beginning in 1989 when, working with his daughter in "an all-alcoholic Shakespeare company," he agreed to help her with a scene from Uncle Vanya and immediately thought of "Wally." Wallace Shawn didn't want to do it--in Gregory's impeccable imitation, "because I'm not an actor." He agreed to do it only when Gregory explained that it wasn't a show, that they'd just work on it in private--which was also how he convinced George Gaines, then still grieving over the death of his son, and Julianne Moore, who was fed up with acting and planning to become a teacher, to take part as well. One thing led to another, and they kept rehearsing the play each summer, then gradually invited some friends to watch, finally persuading Louis Malle to document the production on film... Gregory summed up the experience as an illustration of "Chekhovian reality," an act of "translating pain into the ecstatic."

Larry Pine, who played Astrov in that non-production, came out and joked that Gregory had told him he would have to go into therapy if he took the part, and when Pine balked ("I like to eat out and take cabs when it gets cold"), the director offered to pay for his first year. "And it changed my life!" Pine quipped, before plunging into the dramatic monologue at the heart of A Tragedian in Spite of Himself (PDF script). It's a classic Chekhovian rant against the little things in life that drive one mad, and had me thinking at one point that Dennis Leary would be perfect in Chekhov--of course, when Pine implored us, "Understand, this isn't farce, it's tragedy!", that just made us laugh harder. He followed that piece with a letter from Chekhov to his editor that began by suggesting artists should stop trying to offer solutions to the world's problems and concentrate on "the correct posing of questions." (Don't quote me on that; I went looking in A Life in Letters to check the quote but got tired because I stay up too late blogging...) Finally, he performed some of Trigorin's speeches on the frustrations of being a writer from The Seagull, with Betsy Bonner of the Unterberg reciting Nina's lines offstage. The dialogue is a lacerating self-critique of a writer who's convinced his friends will walk past his grave saying, "He was a good writer, but not as good as Turgenev," and Pine nailed the character's simultaneous need to write and lack of confidence in his ability to do so--every struggling writer in the room (and I'm sure there were plenty) knew exactly what he meant.


Thanks for that, Ron. I thought Uncle Vanya on 42nd St. was fantastic--amazing acting, esp. Pine and the babe who played Sonya.

Posted by: Jimmy Beck at November 9, 2004 12:50 PM
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