The audience applauded David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver but not the other four cast members when they first entered the stage at the performance I saw of Christopher Durang’s new play, which is simultaneously a send-up of and an homage to the plays of Anton Chekhov – a loopy exercise in hilarity with moments of real feeling. The practice of celebrity entrance applause had never seemed ruder, but the audience made up for it; by the end of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” each of the actors had performed at least one scene apiece for which they were wildly applauded.
Vanya (Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) are brother and stepsister who live in an old stone house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (gorgeously designed by David Korins). On the day of the play, their sister Masha (Weaver), a famous movie star, has come home for a visit, bringing along her boyfriend of three months, the far younger aspiring actor Spike (Billy Magnussen.) Masha’s visits are rare. She has little interest in her siblings, who feel that life passed them by as they took care of their ailing parents, two academics who had a thing for Chekhov, which is why they gave Russian names to all their children. Masha is back this time only because she wants to go to a neighbor’s costume party. She has brought along a Snow White costume. She also has costumes for her siblings, so that Vanya can accompany her as Grumpy and Sonia as Dopey.
“I don’t want to go as your dwarf,” Sonia complains.
Durang seems set on including allusions to as many of the plays of Anton Chekhov as possible, affording a rare opportunity for pedants to pretend they aren’t boasting when they point out the connections. But one needn’t know Chekhov at all to get what’s going on, or find it both funny and even surprisingly moving. Nielsen’s Sonia, for example, rues that she never married, feels her life wasted; whines a lot.
“I know I complain, but in some ways I love it here,” she says. “I love the wild turkeys who wander about the property. I like learning they’re so awkward that they sleep in trees but repeatedly fall out of them. I identify with them…I am a wild turkey. I am a wild turkey. And I love the cherry orchard in the spring….”
“It’s not an orchard,” Vanya responds. “You don’t call 10 or 11 trees an orchard.”
“I do,” Sonia says, in one of their many insanely petty and hysterical squabbles. “I wouldn’t call two or three trees an orchard, but 10 or 11 trees, I do call an orchard.”
One need not know that in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” the character Nina keeps on saying “I am a seagull,” to be delighted with Sonia’s repeating “I am a wild turkey” throughout the rest of the play. (There is in fact a Nina here also, a beautiful young visitor played by Genevieve Angelson.)
Durang is not content with a Chekhov mashup. He also throws a little Greek tragedy into the mix (less successfully, in my view): Shalita Grant plays Cassandra, a seer who prophesies the future, and is also Vanya and Sonia’s housekeeper. She senses something is up, and her prediction proves correct: As it turns out, Masha, who pays all the bills, is planning on selling the house. (No great revelation to those who know their Chekhov.)
There is more payoff to the plot than one might expect from something Chekhovian, but what’s most satisfying about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are the running gags, and some great feats of showmanship. David Hyde Pierce is splendid in his deadpan hang-dog reactions to the goings-on. Nielsen is terrific at clowning, and even better when she’s not, such as a vibrant, touching scene of her speaking on the telephone with a man who might be interested in her. Weaver is funny as an over-the-top narcissist, though she may take the artificiality of her character a little too far. We are sure to see more of Billy Magnussen as a result of his star-making turn as Spike, although actually, there’s little more to see of him: His role calls for his incessantly stripping down to his underwear. He’s not just sexy: One of the funniest moments in the play is his re-creating his audition as the lead for “Entourage 2,” a sequel to the HBO television series that Durang demolishes forever in a few deft lines.
That is not the only reason to see “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It has the most comfortable seats of any “Vanya” I have seen this season.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
By Christopher Durang; directed by Nicholas Martin; sets by David Korins; costumes by Emily Rebholtz; lighting by Justin Townsend; music and sound by Mark Bennett
Cast: Genevieve Angelson (Nina), Shalita Grant (Cassandra), Billy Magnussen (Spike), Kristine Nielsen (Sonia), David Hyde Pierce (Vanya) and Sigourney Weaver (Masha).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is scheduled to run through January 13