I don't like plays, mainly because I don't like theater acting. It's the larger-than-life emoting and unrealistic body language that does it for me. There's a reason "theatricality" is generally an insult in film. The transfer from stage to screen generally fails because the mediums are extremely different, as most actors who have done both will tell you (there's a great Susan Sontag essay about how books are much closer to films than plays are, btw). This makes it a little surprising how many film directors got their start in theater (and how many continued to work on the stage late into their careers, with probably the most notable being Ingmar Bergman), but direction in a lot of ways has a lot more to do with vision than any particular skill set.
Vanya on 42nd Street was created out of a series of performances Andre Gregory directed of the play Uncle Vanya in a run down theater in Times Square. Rather than put up full shows with costumes and sets, the actors simply performed rehearsals of the full play in their normal clothes. Malle's film adds another layer of dramatism, since the rehearsal itself is now the subject of the story rather than the play alone. It should also be noted that the play itself was written in Russia and the actors are performing David Mamet's adaptation of the literal English translation, making what ends up on the screen even further removed from the original context of the play What results is certainly one of the most interesting adaptations of a play ever filmed, at least conceptually. Malle uses the simple concept of the movie to deliver a compelling meditation on acting, theater, cinema, reality vs. drama, and finally New York, which is only seen in exterior in the brief opening sequence but remains an ever-present character thanks to its crumbling theater that houses the rehearsal and the way the lives and dedication of the actors speaks to the atmosphere of New York in the early 90s.
But just because you love the concept, it doesn't mean you don't still have to watch the thing, and that's where the film becomes more difficult for me. Sitting through any performance of Uncle Vanya, regardless of the format, means I'm probably going to be turned off a little bit. There were a bunch of little things that grated on me here that are typical of theater acting - the pointing at someone when you agree with what they are saying, the exaggerated hand motions, the awkward blocking. Despite this, by the time Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith begin to bond, I was wrapped up in the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Malle's direction is intently focused on these performances at the expense of anything else, which is really as it should be, as this is a concert film of sorts. I ended up finding Vanya more enjoyable than I first feared, but it was still somewhat of a disappointment as my final Malle film in the Collection.