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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

For many contemporary theatregoers, a little Chekov goes a long way. The turn-of-the-20th-century Russian playwright understood the changing world, and possessed a unique knack for capturing the disaffection that encouraged. But for modern sensibilities, the sedate nature of so much of his dialogue, to say nothing of the lugubrious pacing imposed on it by so many well-meaning directors, can make sitting through Chekov's meditations on the human condition register anywhere from a trail to coma-inducing.

But even if the thought of seeing another Seagull or Cherry Orchard or Three Sisters fills you with strength-sapping dread, don't immediately write off Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Christopher Durang's new spin on the traditional formula, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, captures, with high style and frequently high comedy, exactly the chemistry so integral to Chekov — but with humor and point you don't have to be a classicist to recognize.

Despite the premise that the title (accurately) promises, however, this is neither an all-out parody nor even an unqualified laugh-fest. Durang has observed, with a high-powered microscope, the original works, then he's borrowed some things and stolen others. But he's filled out the remainder with plenty of his own ideas about what being, whether alone or a member of the family, means in the year 2012. The result is a creamy, alluring work, that feels like both an authentic homage and a fresh creation worthy of inspiring its own imitators.

Not that directly riffing on this would be easy given how far Durang has already gone. Within the homey confines of a serene farm house in Bucks County, he has planted Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), a fiftysomething brother-sister pair that's been living together ever since the elderly parents they were caring for died some years ago. Neither has ever held a job or a serious romantic partner, and the bills for those choices are coming due: Vanya has grown only more distant and Sonia angrier at the world, and both are finding their souls wasting away from disuse.

They spend the morning arguing about coffee — Sonia always brings Vanya his, and is horrified that this morning he's fetched a cup for himself — and sitting at the window, looking morosely out at the estate just beyond. "Has the blue heron been at the pond yet this morning?", Sonia asks, her voice at once choked in wonder and exhausted with repetition. The duo's small talk continues, wading through more jabber about coffee (which ends in two mugs being shattered against the floor) and the personal lives that have spun out of their control.

Example one: "It's just I had bad dreams last night," Sonia sighs. "I dreamt I was 52 and I wasn't married."

Vanya, studying her, replies the only way he can: "Were you dreaming in documentary form?"

Example two: "Your sadness is very heavy this morning, Sonia. Can you lighten it only?"

"No."

Durang treads a fine line here, and if occasionally his lines ring as a bit too self-consciously clever, for the most part he masterfully depicts how these two people have been crafted by both present-day circumstances and their unusual upbringing. (Their parents were college professors and community theatre enthusiasts, hence their names.) What's more, he's able to maintain it when we meet the next elements in the equation: Sonia and Vanya's sister, Masha (Sigourney Weaver), an enormous but declining movie star who's paid the mortgage on the house for years, and has arrived for a visit with her last boy-toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen) in tow.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Sigourney Weaver, Genevieve Angelson, and David Hyde Pierce.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

As the weekend unfolds, also bringing the young next-door neighbor Nina (Genevieve Angelson), of course an aspiring actress, into the proceedings, Durang has lots of fun with the group's decaying attitudes and dormant feelings, setting them into situations that recall the sources he's drawn from without calling undue attention to themselves. (A costume party leads Masha to dress as Walt Disney's Snow White, which no one recognizes, and Sonia to masquerade as the Evil Queen As Played By Maggie Smith Going to the Oscars; Vanya's climactic presentation features Nina as a molecule lamenting climate change's destruction of Earth.)

Director Nicholas Martin keeps the tone consistent and the atmosphere effervescent throughout; it's impossible to grow weary with these delightfully offbeat, yet thoroughly recognizable, people. That said, Durang does not make loving them effortless from beginning to end. A sixth character, Cassandra, a cleaning lady who's both aware of and constantly invoking her prognosticating Greek-mythology namesake, pushes the conceit one step too far (though she's ably portrayed by Shalita Grant). And as it runs nearly two and a half hours, the play is slightly overlong, and noticeably sags when the plot starts wrapping itself up in the second act. (The climax is a speech by Vanya mourning the loss of collective culture, which could easily be cut by half.)

But when the play is at its best, it truly sparkles. One of the finest fusions of acting and writing to occur so far this season is Sonia's taking a phone call from a man she met at the party. Nielsen, as always so wonderfully scattered, begins the conversation as tentative, even incredulous, and lapses into her mock–Maggie Smith accent as a defense mechanism. But as the chat continues, you glimpse and understand the soul of this woman who's been lonely for so many decades she has no clue how to change that now. At the performance I attended, you could feel a wave of heartbreak cresting over the audience when Sonia, wracked with terrified indecision, insisted she was busy on a night she knew she had nothing planned.

No one else is quite as stunning, but everyone is highly polished. Hyde Pierce's typical university-adjunct stuffiness is just right for Vanya, and Magnussen's erotic cluelessness as Spike and Angelson's nebulous innocence as Nina are just as nimbly managed. And special mention should go to Weaver, who has crafted a cunningly stylized take on Masha that evokes not just Madame Arkadina but also Nielsen's busy-eyed warmth — there's no question these are all members of the same family.

Because you believe so utterly in even the tiniest relationships, this becomes a real, engaging evening that transcends its background to become a worthy achievement in its own right. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike may not ever occupy the same rarefied place in the theatre that real Chekov's plays do, but it explains and amplifies their appeal for today while giving us a new work of sufficient intricacy, depth, and charm that we should be proud to call it our own.


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Through January 13
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets and current schedule: Telecharge