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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Colors of Chekhov Reflected Through the Antic Lens of Christopher Durang

Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and
David Hyde Pierce

As Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike begins, Vanya is sipping coffee in the morning room of a comfortable farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when Sonia enters carrying a cup of coffee for him.

I brought you coffee, dearest Vanya/ I have some/ Oh. But I bring you coffee every morning/ Well, yes, but you weren't available/ Well, I was briefly in the bathroom, you couldn't wait?/ I don't know. The coffee was made, you weren't there, I'm capable of pouring coffee into a cup/ But I like bringing you coffee in the morning/ Fine. Here, take this cup and give me that one./ Alright ... . Now I feel better/ I'm glad.

The pair briefly discuss whether "the blue heron has yet appeared on the property's pond this morning, and then Vanya returns to the discussion which in rueful comedic terms expresses the discontent of their life together.

I'm afraid the other cup tasted better/ Well, it's the same coffee/ Well, maybe I put in more milk than you did. Maybe that's why it tastes better./ Don't I usually put in the right amount of milk?/ Well, yes. I don't usually think about it. It's just that I was drinking one coffee, and liking it, and then suddenly there's a second cup of coffee, and I'm liking it slightly less. It's no big deal. I'm just making pleasant conversation ... .

At this point, less than five minutes in, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike had me completely in its thrall where I have remained ever since. Christopher Durang's delightful new play swiftly conveys complex human behavior and emotions that reflect our own life experiences with theatricality, rich antic humor, and heart piercing truth. Passive aggression has never been more delicious.

In short order, we learn that Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister and that they have taken care of the property and their parents through the latter's extended dementia-ridden final years while their sister Masha was off in Hollywood being a movie star and working her way through five husbands. Sonia longs for a conjugal relationship with Vanya (having been adopted, Sonia has no genetic relationship with her siblings), but Vanya has no such interest in her "in that way. I ... march to a different drummer". Their Chekhovian names are the result of them being the children of two professor parents who were active in community theatre to boot.

Sonia hasn't yet bothered to tell Vanya that Masha is just minutes away from paying them a rare visit. When Masha does arrive, she is accompanied by Spike, a narcissistic, sexy would-be actor still in his twenties, who is Masha's current sure to disappoint live-in lover. Also on hand for our delectation are Nina, a star struck young woman with her own aspirations to be an actor. She is visiting her aunt and uncle next door and is invited to the party by the sexually voracious Spike and Cassandra, Vanya and Masha's prognosticator of disaster housekeeper.

The high-powered, glittering cast that has been gathered here for this auspicious McCarter Theatre production in association with Lincoln Center Theatre most prominently features David Hyde Pierce (Vanya), Kristine Nielsen (Sonia) and Sigourney Weaver (Masha). You may be surprised to learn that all three are Durang veterans (Pierce was in the short lived Broadway production of Beyond Therapy in 1982).

David Hyde Pierce first impresses by accurately capturing the sense of a life wasted in the dissatisfied Vanya whose circumspect, unsatisfying existence has left him feeling diminished. Vanya may be witty and feisty in his way, but Pierce makes it clear that in his own eyes Vanya has squandered his life. However, when events take his Vanya outside of his comfort zone, Pierce brings all his star comedic powers to a temporarily aroused Vanya staking claim to the worth of his existence. Pierce does so without tearing the fabric of the usual Vanya. I do not think that many dedicated theatregoers will want to miss the play that our Bucks County Vanya writes to create the (kind of) play which he thinks the ridiculed Konstantin of The Sea Gull would have written. It teeters on being good at least as much as it does on being risible.

Kristine Nielsen delightfully conveys the emergence of a new and improved Sonia. It is quite a breathtaking leap, and it is difficult for author and actress to convince us of its believability. Her emergence is exhilarating fun, and it is easy to fall in love with Nielsen performance. However, as it is with most of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, it is to be hoped that Durang, Nielsen and director Nicholas Martin find the way for Sonia's theatrically skewered journey to remain real at its core.

Sigourney Weaver commands the stage and farmhouse just as Masha should. Additionally, Weaver supplies a comic insouciance which makes us like Weaver even more than we dislike Masha. The dichotomy between Masha's satisfaction with her sanctimonious self aggrandizement and the reality of her life, particularly as demonstrated by the nature of her relationship with Spike, further softens our view of Masha. Yet Weaver and Durang unflinchingly reveal her considerable character deficiencies.

Billy Magnussen captures all the comic buffoonery of Spike, his most satiric creation here. Shalita Grant hilariously limns African-American comic rhythms and attitudes adding considerably to the delight of a Cassandra who doesn't realize that she is one. Genevieve Angelson is an appropriately clueless Nina.

Director Nicholas Martin has done an excellent job of making it clear that the satire that is present in this play is not aimed at Chekhov, and that the elegiac soul of Chekhov is preserved. Still, it would likely make the already richly entertaining Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike more cohesive and effective if the performance of the slam bang second act theatrical fireworks were more modulated. The large, lush and detailed set by David Korins of the Bucks County farmhouse and its surrounding property effectively encompasses realism and artificiality as artfully as does the play.

While there are large dollops of Chekhov throughout the play, there are no slavish borrowings. These characters are Durang's and they each have their own personalities and routes to traverse. Adding his witty dialogue and antic sense of humor, with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang has brought Chekhov's eternal verities to our lives in 21st century America.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday (10/2, 10/9), Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday (except 10/7) 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through October 14, 2012, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang; directed by Nicholas Martin

Vanya...................David Hyde Pierce
Sonia..............Kristine Nielsen
Cassandra.........................Shalita Grant
Masha...................................Sigourney Weaver
Spike.............................................Billy Magnussen
Nina....................................Genevieve Angelson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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