Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
“If everyone was on anti-depressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about,” announces one of the characters in the hilarious new Christopher Durang play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which is now playing a limited run at Broadway’s Golden Theatre.
Durang is a frequent translator of Anton Chekhov’s works and this is sort of his comedy-of-the-absurd love letter to the playwright. If you know Chekhov’s work (like The CherryOrchard or Uncle Vanya, recently adapted by Annie Baker), as well as other classics (Greek, Shakespearean and otherwise), you’ll relish the nuances and allusions that abound. If not, you’ll still howl at the absurd characters populating Durang’s play.
The show is slightly meta, referencing theatre mores and acting techniques, yet it’s not over kill. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Vanya… is clever and funny. And by using a quasi show-within-a-show device (Masha is an actress), Durang’s characters are given license to be as wacky and zany as they like.
We open with Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and his (adopted) sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) drinking coffee in their Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farm house. We soon meet their cleaning woman, Cassandra—yes, that Cassandra—played with zeal by Shalita Grant, who arrives with a few warnings for the siblings. The hilarity kicks into high gear when Vanya and Sonia’s sister, Masha (Sigourney Weaver) arrives with her much younger
boy toy boyfriend, Spike (Billy Magnussen).
Later, Vanya and Sonia’s neighbor's niece, Nina (Genevieve Angelson), who happens to be
a big fan of Masha’s, is thrown into the mix.
There’s really not much in the way of plot—just lots of sibling rivalry and personal foibles, but that’s similar to many of Chekhov’s works. Like Chekhov, Durang unburdens himself from the need to diagram plot points and instead explores the mundane, human life. This Chekhovian tale, however, is laugh out loud hysterical. (I suppose that’s not entirely fair, since Chekhov was funny; this is just a bigger, broader type of humor.)
Act one sets up the stakes (not life and death but important to the characters) and then act two wraps up the characters’ arcs—but not before a few outbursts, including a too-long nostalgia tear from Vanya. There ends up being a point, from a character perspective, to the diatribe, but before we get there, Pierce does his best Mark Rylance as Vanya longs for the simplicity and wholesomeness of yesterday and decries today’s excesses. (You may remember that Pierce and Rylance shared the stage in La Bete a few seasons ago.) Think of it as Vanya’s “mad as hell” moment. I agree with everything he says (I’m old fashioned, after all), but the outburst comes on rather unnaturally and goes on longer than it should.
That brief bump in the road aside, Durang’s writing and director Nicholas Martin’s terrific pacing create a fertile playground for these experienced actors. Weaver gleefully chews scenery as the insecure, needy and self-obsessed actress. Magnussen is young and spritely as the dim but hot young actor (who happens to prance around in skimpy underwear for much of the play, by the way). Grant has unparalleled verbal dexterity and is absolutely riotous as Cassandra plays out her own Greek tragedy. And Nielsen is spot-on perfect as the dowdy, desperate and looked over sibling. (And watch for her Dame Maggie Smith impression. You’ll be rolling in the aisles!)
To learn more about the show and to purchase tickets, visit vanyasoniamashaspike.com.