November 29, 2005
About a year after I graduated from college I was on a train out to Amagansett when I realized I was sitting next to Andre Gregory. Fellow cinephiles will know that Andre Gregory is the Andre from My Dinner with Andre, the Louis Malle film beloved amongst a certain circle of film geeks. I'm not one to be starstruck or the type to chat up a famous person for no reason, but in this case I had to say something. He was listening to music with headphones, it was playing loudly and I knew the recording, so when he was changing tapes, I asked him if it was the Bulgarian Women's Choir. He nodded. Then I asked asked if he was Andre Gregory. "Why yes, yes I am, " he replied seeming pleased. For the next 40 minutes or so we had one of those intense convoluted conversations that I can best describe as being something like the one in the movie covering topics ranging from Japanese cinema to the polar bear in Central Park to the suicides of friends. For every question I asked, he asked two more. It was thrilling... my own private conversation with Andre. He exited the train before me, but before he left, he invited me to his production of Uncle Vanya at the Victory Theater. He gave me a date a fortnight in the future and told me not to be late.
Now this was the early 90's and Times Square was in it's last throws as the old dirty Times Square of lore. The transformation into a sanitized tourist mall had not begun. The Victory Theater (as well as most of the other theaters on 42nd street) was a decrepit ruin. In the twenties the theater then known as the Belasco featured the A-list of vaudeville: Mary Pickford, Tyrone Power and Lillian Gish.
Houdini built a swimming pool under the stage to catch his elephant Jennie after he made her "disappear". Houdini's act later moved to the Hippodrome, a much bigger house, but he was said to have always had a soft spot for the place. Later the theater housed the first burlesque house on Broadway. During World War II it became a B movie palace, and then for many years the Victory was a XXX skin flick palace. By the 80's it was shuttered.
When I arrived for the play that fall day in 1991 I had to step over a sleeping junkie to get to the theater door. The lobby was dark and smelled of urine, but upon entering the theater there were a small group of actors on stage around a dinner table. Mr. Gregory welcomed me like an old friend. A few more guests arrived, but the actors outnumbered us. We sat up on the stage and so began a production of Uncle Vanya so intense that it was as if I had unwittingly stepped into the living room of a very dysfunctional family. In my memory I held my breath most of the two hours. I don't think I've experienced a film or a play since that begins to compare. Wallace Shawn played Vanya.
I mention this now because we saw a play this weekend at a theater a few doors down from the Victory, now the New Victory ("The Ultimate theater for Families!" proclaims a sign outside) this weekend. 42nd Street is unrecognizable with crushes of tourists so dense navigation is difficult. We saw a play that was competent and polite, the out of town audience applauding nicely. Afterwords we had dinner with one of the actors, a friend of Jenn's. As they spoke I kept thinking about the Victory and how lucky I was to have been on the train that November day and to have witnessed one of those small scenes that make New York New York.