Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 14, 2013
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durange. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Original music & sound design by Mark Bennett. Cast: Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce, with Kristine Nielsen, and Billy Magnussen, Shalita Grant, Genevieve Angelson.
After all, the first three characters named in the title are facing legitimately distress-inducing problems. Vanya and Sonia (David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen) are 50-something siblings still living together in their family's farm house in Bucks County, some years after the deaths of the parents of whom they were caretakers. With no other relationships, jobs, or hopes to call their own, they're entirely dependent on their sister Masha for their livelihood — and though she's a Hollywood star, she's fading and facing a bitterly lonely future. So, of course, when Masha (Sigourney Weaver) arrives for the weekend, dragging along her decades-younger boy-toy Spike (Billy Magnussen), selling the house to bolster her own sagging fortunes is naturally at the top of her agenda.
Yet there's no wallowing in despondency because no one recognizes it as such. True, the siblings are aware that their late community theatre–loving professor parents gave them the names they did because of the appreciation for Chekhov. But when Vanya and Sonia sit in their morning room every day soon after waking, and mull over the crucial questions of life ("Has the blue heron been at the pond yet this morning?", do their 10 or 11 cherry trees constitute an orchard?), they do so because doing so gives them comfort in a world that doesn't always otherwise make sense. (The effect of natural chaos on a pot of coffee, for example, will result in two smashed mugs before the first scene ends.)
As the action unfolds, we see even more why this centering ritual is important. Without it, how could they — or anyone — survive the prognosticating rantings of their psychic cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant), the existential threat of Masha dragging them to a costume party where they must all dress as different characters from Disney's Snow White, Vanya fulfilling his dream of writing a play about a molecule pondering existence after the destruction of Earth, or Sonia entertaining a phone call from the only man who has apparently ever liked her for her personality? As scripted, directed (with crisp assurance by Nicholas Martin), and designed (sunnily, by David Korins on sets, Emily Rebholz on costumes, and Justin Townsend on lights), these are all real-world concerns given pungent, urgent form.
The actors' portrayals strike tones right in line with these. Vanya's epic excoriation of America's newfound lack of shared culture gives Hyde Pierce a high-octane outlet for the helpless neuroticism he's so gifted at embodying. (And his application of energy has greatly improved since Lincoln Center, making the scene necessary in a way it wasn't before.) Weaver has found new depths of feeling beneath Masha's plastic and plastic-surgery façade that imbue her various jags of whining (about Sonia's Maggie-Smith-as-Evil-Queen costume) or sobbing (about her questionable romantic and employment prospects) with haunting overtones. Magnussen's magnetic vacuousness, Angelson's doe-eyed hanging-on, and Grant's manic fortune all shine almost as brightly themselves.
Nielsen, however, remains both the play's most prominent funny bone and its most visible heart. Her dazed expressions as she struggles to make sense of the many nuances of her bubbling life are giddy, her Maggie Smith vocalizing and über-sweeping arm movements priceless. But when she entertains that phone call after the party, and must confront the possibility of upending everything she's held onto for more than five decades, she'll also break your heart with her alternating evocations of optimism and terror.
That's when Sonia learns that making a decision at a real crossroads is never as simple or as encouraging as you might think. But it is important — and she, Vanya, and Masha are all eventually poised to discover that taking control, whatever the consequences may be, can indeed be its own reward. Argue all you want about whether Chekhov would have approved of this spin on his work. When you're watching Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang tries to convince you that its by turns hilarious and insightful observations are as relevant as The Seagull or Three Sisters. Even if you're not sure Sonia is the wild turkey she identifies with or that that storied blue heron will ever arrive, it's pretty difficult to disagree.