Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By: Victor Gluck
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Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver
in a scene from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
(Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Christopher Durang’s latest comedy-satire, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now having its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is his most focused and satisfying play in years. Taking ideas and themes from the late 19th century plays of Anton Chekhov, Durang has hilariously mixed them up into a new 21st century comedy which updates the angst and ennui of his predecessor. His stellar cast includes Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen who have worked with Durang before and are attuned to his rhythms. Director Nicholas Martin has previously piloted Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them in 2009 and Betty’s Summer Vacation to its Obie Awards in 1999 for Durang, Nielsen and himself.

It would probably add to the fun to know the Chekhov plays being satirized but as most of the references are explained – or mentioned at least twice – it is not entirely necessary to get the jokes. Named after characters in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters because their professor parents loved community theater and the Russian author, siblings Vanya (Hyde Pierce) and adopted sister Sonia (Nielsen), have led very different and uneventful lives than their famous stage and film star sister Masha (Weaver). While Vanya and Sonia remained home to care for their elderly parents, Masha traveled the world for her career and has had five husbands. Now in their fifties and still single, Vanya and Sonia worry that life has passed them by. A new worry is that Masha is considering selling the house to lower her overhead, shades of the mortgaged estate in The Cherry Orchard.

Billy Magnussen and Kristine Nielsen in a scene
from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
(Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Masha arrives for a visit with her latest boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen) as well as for a costume party at a neighbor’s who has bought the Dorothy Parker house down the road. Unlike the actress at the center of The Cherry Orchard whose paramour is a celebrated but commercial writer, Spike is a handsome 29-year-old actor who as of yet has no credentials, but he has his magnificent and pampered physique which embarrassed the closeted gay Vanya. When Spike meets a young actress visiting next door, with the coincidental name of Nina (the ingénue role in Chekhov’s The Seagull), and Sonia refuses to wear the dwarf costume that Masha has brought for her to wear to set off her Snow White outfit for the party, the stage is set for sibling rivalry, new amorous relations and many revelations.

While the play is studded with Chekhov allusions and parodies (“I am a wild turkey, I am a wild turkey.” “But I’m in mourning for my life.” “I don’t want to go to Moscow – I like it here.”), other theater greats are in for a comedic spin from Oscar Wilde to Tennessee Williams to Stephen Sondheim. Vanya and Sonia’s housekeeper is named Cassandra and like her Greek predecessor for whom she is named she has second sight – except that her prophecies don’t turn out exactly as she calls them. However, the play is really about Chekhov’s great themes: growing old, change and regret. Pierce Hyde has a magnificent tirade about what has been lost since the 1950’s as a way of rebutting twenty-something Spike’s ignorance of the changes wrought by technology. All of the characters brood that their lives have not turned out the way they expected, but they eventually realize that it is not too late to change and that things may have turned out for the best.

Genevieve Angelson and Sigourney Weaver in a scene from Vanya and Sonia
and Masha and Spike
(Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Under Martin’s lively direction, Nielsen is best at this kind of humor, more subtle than in her previous Durang outings. Her Sonia has many moods and colors. Hyde Pierce’s Vanya is more reserved but he makes all of his balanced remarks on change hit their targets. Weaver seems to be having great fun as the actressy Masha but at times her performance seems unfocused, even though she is intended to be bigger than life as the Hollywood star of Sexy Killer and its five sequels.

Magnussen, most recently seen in a showy two-part episode on Boardwalk Empire, nails the role of the self-absorbed male bimbo who has a sense of humor about himself. Shalita Grant is hilarious as the over-the-top Cassandra spouting revised orations from Greek tragedy – and all of whose prophecies have some connection to the plot. In the ingénue role, Genevieve Angelson is lovely as the Nina who worships Masha, Ingmar Bergman movies and the Beatles.

The design team could not be better. David Korins’ Bucks County stone mansion with its wood paneled interior looks like something you would want to rent for the summer or retire to. The delightful costumes from the party clothes for Snow White and her dwarves to Masha’s designer togs to the sportswear that Spike is continually peeling out of are the work of Emily Rebholz. Justin Townsend’s lighting segues around the clock for the play’s six scenes. The original music by Mark Bennett admirably sets the scene for a weekend in the country.

With Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang has returned to the kind of comic satire that he is known for but with a firmer control. On one level there are a great many theater in-jokes, but the play can also be enjoyed for its story of middle-aged siblings surrounded by members of the younger generation who make them feel their age. Nicholas Martin’s sprightly and buoyant production gives Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce a chance to cavort in a new comedy that will keep you in stitches, while at the same time riffing on a serious theme.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (through June 30, 2013)
John Golden Theatre, 352 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or online at http://www.telecharge.com

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