*published on 21 Mar 2013 on The EDGE
The new comedy by Christopher Durang with the tongue tripping title of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a wild ride inside the overeducated, under edited author’s mind. If you love Durang’s irreverent, humor, which can bounce from sex to religion, to technophobia, to arcane commentary about the classics, all with lots of physical comedy thrown in for shits and giggles, then this work is for you.
Durang has corralled one of his long time collaborators, the very tall and funny Sigourney Weaver who has been a Durang muse since they were on the edges of Robert Brustein’s Yale Drama School back in the early ’70s. Brustein’s well-documented brutality to Weaver is more than alluded to in the play as they talk about the route and role her character Masha took, doing five sequels to a popular movie, rather those roles in Chekov for the stage dahling.
Often the problem with so many inside jokes is that the character of Masha has trouble distancing herself from the real live Sigourney playing her. And hence this character falls short and is perceptibly less funny than the other five incredible actors populating the stage.
The thin comedic backstory revolves around three siblings Vanya, Sonia and Masha who come together for a weekend in the Buck’s County house where they all grew up. Sonia was adopted, but yet she and her brother took care of their aging, Alzheimer-ridden parents while movie star Masha ventured forth to make and remake a “sex romp,” which sounds much like a less alien-ridden “Aliens.” It seems as if beyond a mere visit Masha has come home to put the family home up for sale. Not surprisingly the property has a few Chekhovian cherry trees on it and blue herons, which keep appearing.
Sonia is played with comedic genius by the beyond excellent Kristine Nielsen, another Yale Drama School grad, who has done Durang duty in the past and also has a raft of Broadway and off-Broadway credits. She is a welcome addition as the sister who gave up a life to care for her parents. She plays a mean Maggie Smith, wearing the hell out of a sequined dress and doing a monologue on the phone where you would swear another person was talking to her from backstage. She is also often the pivotal role and glue for great scenes.
The ever-strong David Hyde Pierce plays Vanya with understated comic ease. (It is a pleasure to see that neither Pierces’ nor Weaver’s Playbill Bio list film or television work, just reams of theater. KUDOS.)
Durang’s Vanya is an aging, gay man who often ogles the wonderful slice of cheesecake, Masha’s boy-toy Spike, embodied by Billy Magnussen. This kid will be a star if his heart holds up. His energy, verve, beauty and comic timing are a breath of fresh air. Magnussen literally jumps, runs, leaps and lunges everywhere and brings his guilelessness to further lighten many scenes.
The house is held together and often prophesized over by the erstwhile mad Cassandra, played with amazing comic timing and snarky edge by Shakti Grant. Like her Greek namesake, Cassandra often tells the future but no one in the house listens until the prophecy comes to fruition. This Julliard grad has been with this play in all of its incarnations from the McCarter to Lincoln Center and it is wonderful to see her now really own this role.
The final character to wander into this mad house is a young neighbor girl named, well you guessed it, Nina. Nina is a huge fan of Masha’s work and allows Masha to be humorously jealous and envious when Spike takes Nina home after a costume party. Nina is played by the fresh as a daisy Genevieve Angelson and she holds her own among the veterans.
At the costume party Marsha is Snow White, Spike is Prince Charming and Nina and Vanya, who Nina has taken to calling Uncle Vanya, are such funny dwarves. This is where and why Sonia gets her Maggie Smith on. There is not a lot of rhyme or reason to the loosely strung together play other than belly laughs and a template to explore families using the master of familial discord, Chekov, as a guide.
At one point a character commenting on the scenes being played out says, “If everyone took antidepressants Chekov would have had nothing to write about.” Perhaps that’s true, but then there would be different dramas to pen. Durang has balanced this work between the family drama of the past and the ranting times we live in.
The work is well directed by Nicholas Martin on the pitch-perfect country house set by David Korins. I took especial note of the wonderful music, composed just for this work by Mark Bennett, who also did the sound design.
This show is not perfect and there are moments when it drags and lags, but in general the laughs keep coming and finally, as Durang says, “You must always get your hopes up.”