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THEATER : COMMENTARY : Anton Chekhov, Our Contemporary : Why is the fatalistic Russian so relevant in seemingly optimistic America? ‘Uncle Vanya’ holds the key.

<i> Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic. </i>

W hile watching Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street"--an unusual filmed version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” just released on video--I experienced an intense sensation that is probably familiar to anyone who has seen a well-acted Chekhov play.

Somewhere in the first 20 minutes of the story, I felt as if I had been endowed with a fantastic power. I was suddenly able to understand every crushed hope that made up the identities of characters who were doing nothing but having everyday conversations in the midst of uneventful, provincial lives.

This mesmerizing sensation is a Chekhov high, and you get it when actors are doing his work just right, as they do in “Vanya on 42nd Street.” I was not alone in my enthusiasm for the film. Stanley Kauffmann called it “exquisite” in the New Republic. The Times’ Kenneth Turan said: “To watch this ‘Vanya’ is to marvel . . . at how much empathy [Chekhov] has for all of his characters.” In New York magazine, James Kaplan wrote that the film “asserts the absolute relevance of Chekhov in ‘90s America.”

Absolute relevance? By rights, Chekhov should be hopelessly out of vogue in this, the country of limitless possibility. He is the master of the fatalistic; he creates characters who are defined by and trapped in their circumstances, characters with virtually no capacity for change. Americans, instead, are supposed to fervently believe in the possibility of endless make-overs, a belief that sells our magazines and employs our plastic surgeons and infuses our art, from Walt Whitman to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even Quentin Tarantino’s characters are capable of suddenly finding religion while carrying out a hired hit.

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We embrace the millennial optimism of contemporary writers as different as John Bradshaw, Alice Walker and Tony Kushner. Kushner’s “Angels in America” is filled with miracles and revelatory meetings that link people together and change them forever. The play ends on a kind of a rhapsody, delivered by a dying man who refuses despair. He blesses the audience by wishing us “more life.” In Chekhov, Uncle Vanya estimates he has about 10 more years to go. His question is, “How will I get through them?”

Chekhov is Kushner’s philosophical opposite. The endurance of his plays proves that we do not entirely believe in our national myths, in our ideals of self-improvement and self-determination. Chekhov’s prominence is proof that our famous American optimism coexists with a secret respect for the more hidebound laws of reality, for the existence of our own limitations.

And Chekhov is all around us. Miramax has just released “Country Life,” a Michael Blakemore film that sets “Uncle Vanya” in the Australian outback at the end of World War I. Last season, the Mark Taper Forum produced “The Wood Demon,” an earlier version of “Vanya.” And the remaining three major Chekhov plays have all been staged locally in the past year by highly regarded theaters: “The Cherry Orchard” at South Coast Repertory; “The Seagull” at the Matrix Theatre, and “Three Sisters” at A Noise Within. Cornerstone Theater created “A California Seagull,” and now playwright Richard Alfieri has updated “Three Sisters” to present-day Manhattan in a play called “The Sisters,” currently at the Pasadena Playhouse.

C hekhov’s characters actually have something in common with Kushner’s--they sense, often, the coming of a great change. In Kushner, though, “the great work begins"--in other words, the change is just around the corner. In Chekhov, change is something that might occur in the distant future, for people so far away they may as well be another race. “Uncle Vanya” shows a doctor imagining that, in a century or two, people will be free of the miseries of disease and poverty. For the religious, happiness can be attained only from beyond the grave, as a heavenly reward for hard labor here on Earth, as Sonya states at the end of “Uncle Vanya.”

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The here and now is permeated in Chekhov with the impossibility of human happiness. Life is littered with frailty, guilt and vice, and with the necessity of work, often dreary and meaningless. Work, as the unemployed Irina says in “Three Sisters,” is the very meaning of life. When she actually must perform it, near the end of the play, she finds work to be exhausting and soul-numbing.

In “Vanya,” Sonya imagines “a chain of days and endless nights . . . of working for others, and no rest until we die.” And while we Americans like to believe in the possibility of constant improvement and spend our lives in the attempt to glamorize, overcome or cheat the dreariness of work, we also know we must return to it, as Vanya does at the end of the play.

T he fragile chemistry of Che khov’s drama is adaptable and transportable, because it relies on the characters’ internal lives. That is why “Vanya on 42nd Street” can flaunt its New York setting and still be so true to Chekhov. The film opens with shots of the mass of humanity, prostitutes, businessmen and actors, walking hectic walks on 42nd Street. Wallace Shawn, who will play Vanya, is seen eating a knish out of paper on the street. Once the play-within-the-film begins, the anachronisms continue. Often when a character calls for water or for vodka, he will drink it from a paper cup bearing an I NY logo.

Shawn also gives us a peculiarly modern Vanya (in this fresh-sounding adaptation by David Mamet). He is a small, pale man with a distinctive chipmunkish face. He hardly looks as if he could do the physical labor required of Vanya, who runs a large estate. What’s more, his biting sarcasm--the language of Uncle Vanya’s tremendous bitterness--has a distinctly contemporary ring to it. Yet his bitterness is clear and palpable and Shawn, also a playwright, gives the finest screen performance of his acting career.

Malle filmed Andre Gregory’s staging of “Uncle Vanya,” a theatrical happening that took place over a period of years, sometimes in a downtown Manhattan loft, sometimes at a beautiful, neglected theater on 42nd Street, the Victory. The only people who saw this “Uncle Vanya” were invited guests of the cast and crew, who came in small bunches to watch the ongoing workshops. That is, until Malle made his film, which he shot at another dilapidated theater on the same street, the New Amsterdam (the one Disney plans to renovate).

In effect, the actors had years to take on their characters, an unheard of luxury, time enough for them to explore every nuance. Sensitive to the delicate emotional ecology of what the actors had created, Malle shot the film in sequence. He created a wonderful hybrid, minus the fustiness that usually occurs when theater is captured on film.

“Vanya on 42nd Street” proves that Chekhov does not require historical reproduction, only a caretaking of the play’s emotional truths. Andre Gregory told Theater Week magazine: “I was not interested in Russia in the 19th Century. I am fascinated by our own time.” Similarly, in “Country Life,” Blakemore has translated, with considerable success, Chekhov’s quintessentially Russian characters to the Australian outback.

But other recent adaptations have not been quite as successful.

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For actors and directors, getting Chekhov right is fraught with peril. His plays respond particularly badly to a disregard for subtlety. Last year’s production of “The Seagull” at the Matrix, for example, was hurt by a bunch of individualistic, show-offy performances. At one point, director Milton Katselas had his Arkadina and Trigorin engage in a knockdown brawl, inappropriate to an almost comical degree. The too-vivid characters, deprived of any social context, were reduced to being just annoyingly self-obsessed.

In “The Sisters,” playwright Alfieri displays an understanding of Chekhov’s characters, whom he has moved to present-day Manhattan. But his dialogue is similarly overdone and untrue. “Call me a bitch, a shrew, a harpy, but that one could give me lessons,” says the Masha character, speaking of her brother’s fiancee. By heating up the drama and underlining every character’s intentions, Alfieri has rendered them false and turned Chekhov into a soap opera.

Chekhov had an aversion to melodramatics. His work is anti-drama--think of the three sisters forever longing for Moscow. When a forceful action is taken in one of his plays, it is almost always ineffective. When Vanya shoots his brother-in-law, he misses, and even the miss takes place offstage. As his biographer Henri Troyat wrote, Chekhov “tried to avoid all dramatic turns of events, all coups de theatre , and replace external with internal action; he wanted to win over his audience with psychology rather than stage business.”

Like many writers at the turn of the century, Chekhov was affected by Darwin and by all the other new ideas that forced 19th-Century thinkers to view human beings as less in control of their destinies than previous generations believed. A doctor himself, he held an almost scientific view of the inevitability of human behavior given any set of particular circumstances. He created characters who are defined by the social forces in which they are trapped as much as by any individual personality trait.

Chekhov was suspicious of an idea very dear to us: the capacity of humans to change the course of their lives. And he was no more sanguine about art’s visionary or political power, or the moral power of the artist. In “The Seagull,” for instance, a vibrant young woman is impregnated and abandoned by a writer in whose work she had found perfect truth and beauty. Chekhov himself fervently believed that he did not have the power to change human behavior, only to observe it honestly.

But we continue to be drawn to the fatalism of Chekhov’s art, mostly because he tempers his vision with unparalleled compassion and insight. His plays offer actors a great challenge; they are a kind of gold ring of emotional truthfulness.

One of Chekhov’s correspondents, a man named Anatoly Koni, read “The Seagull” and was moved to write: The play “is life itself on stage with all its tragic alliances, eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings--the sort of everyday life that is accessible to everyone and understood in its cruel internal irony by almost no one.”

Anton Chekhov

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