“If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about,” Sonia tells her brother Vanya in Christopher Durang’s hilarious yet improbably moving play, now bumped up to Broadway. The truth, though, is that even today when everybody IS on antidepressants, Chekhov would still have plenty to write about. The proof is “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Durang’s simultaneous spoof of and homage to the work of the Russian dramatist. With its first-rate cast intact, I like the play even better on seeing it a second time, in its new home at the Golden Theater – and I loved it at Lincoln Center.
If it is fair to call the play Chekhovian, “Vanya and Sonia” is also uniquely Durangian – maybe the better adjective would be Duranged. The still-deranged Durang is a more mature playwright whose anarchic impulses have been channeled into a pleasing theatrical structure, and whose repertoire has been expanded to include genuine feeling.
As I wrote last November when it debuted at the Mitzi Newhouse, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) are brother and sister (though not blood relatives; she was adopted), who live in an old stone house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. On the day of the play, their sister Masha (Sigourney 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. She also has a hidden agenda: She plans to sell the childhood home that she pays for, and on which the unemployed Vanya and Sonia depend.
Durang alludes to as many of the plays of Anton Chekhov as possible, but there are only a handful of lines that don’t make sense unless you know your Chekhov – and just a rudimentary acquaintanceship is required even for these. The audience laughs when new neighbor and ingénue Nina (Genevieve Angelson) asks Vanya whether she can call him uncle – and then there are roars of laughter anew each time she calls him Uncle Vanya.
Durang generously gives each of the six actors in the cast at least one special monologue that allows them to dazzle. For David Hyde Pierce, it’s the rant set off by Spike’s finding it ridiculous that people use to lick postage stamps:
“We licked postage stamps, we didn’t have answering machines; you had to call people back. We ate Spam, just like the soldiers in World War II did….We played Scrabble and Monopoly. We didn’t play video games, in some virtual reality, where we would kill policemen and prostitutes as if that was some sort of entertainment.”
It’s a cranky paean to the past, a pointed commentary on the loss of shared memories and connectedness, an amusing catalogue of ooh-inducing popular culture prompts for Baby Boomers, and a chance for the actor to strut his stuff.
But the best monologue is by Kristine Nielsen, who is overall the best thing about the show, and also most clearly representative of its dual pleasures: She wrings huge laughs out of every line, sometimes just from her facial expression. But her telephone call from an unexpected suitor is one of the most touching scenes I have seen on a New York stage in a long time.
Wisely, director Nicholas Martin seems to have toned down some of the excessively campy moments, especially Sigourney Weaver’s take as the aging narcissistic movie star – a brave undertaking by somebody who is after all, an aging movie star.
David Korin’s delectable set of a home is further away from us because of the proscenium rather than the thrust stage, but it remains magical – and, truth to tell, the show makes more sense in proscenium: The action is framed now literally, as it has been all along literarily, by the allusions to Chekhov and Greek tragedy and theater in general — Durang’s gentle meta-playfulness.
Still least successful for me is the character Cassandra, an import from Greek tragedy, who goes around saying “Beware” and predicting the future. She is also the cleaning lady. There is something cringe-worthy about having an African-American character practice voodoo. But Shalita Grant makes the part her own, and I realize now that Cassandra’s actions enhance the plot. Billy Magnusen is still spot-on hilarious and sexy as Spike (Vanya: “Why does he take his clothes off so much?” Sonia: “Because he can”)
On the day that they announced “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” would transfer to Broadway — which was Chekhov’s birthday — I had discovered a letter Chekhov had written to his brother enumerating the Rules for Civilized People. Civilized people, he wrote:
“respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous…”
“…have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats…”
“…are not devious..”
“…work at developing their aesthetic sensibility…”
So maybe Christopher Durang isn’t completely civilized — he has certainly developed his aesthetic sensibility, but I cannot imagine his having any compassion at all for cats — and for that I’m grateful.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha
at the John Golden Theater
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.
Ticket prices: $62 – $132 Buy tickets
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is scheduled to run through June 30, 2013. It would shock me if it were not extended.