By: David Sheward
In a program essay, Christopher Durang describes his new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, as Chekhov in a blender. That makes it sound as though this wacky yet touching work is a parody, but as the playwright goes on to explain in the essay, it’s not. The inventive author of such wildly funny pieces as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Betty’s Summer Vacation employs numerous references to all four of Chekhov’s major plays, but these are only a starting point for an insightful and compassionate profile of a family coping with loss and confusion in the digital age. But, don’t worry, it’s hilarious too.
Just like their Chekhovian namesakes, depressed siblings Vanya and Sonia may have their Bucks County home sold out from under them by an unfeeling well-off relative: their sister Masha, a glamorous movie star who has just arrived with her boy toy, Spike. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady Cassandra lives up to her moniker by foretelling disaster every five minutes, and a lovely visiting neighbor, Nina, much like the ingénue in The Seagull, forms an attachment with this troubled clan.
There are wild and woolly take-offs on the Russian master’s tendency to feature sad protagonists, but Durang’s mixed-up characters are far from caricatures. The performances by a splendid cast and even-handed direction by Nicholas Martin wisely avoid overplaying the funhouse-mirror aspects of the script and keep the emotions honest.
In two heartrending monologues, Vanya and Sonia expose their aching, unfulfilled souls. Set off by Spike texting during a reading of Vanya’s play (based on the abstract piece written by Treplev in The Seagull), the unhappy brother launches into a tour-de-force diatribe on the shallowness of the Facebook age and his longing for the simpler pleasures of his 1950s childhood. Middle-aged Sonia’s aria of despair comes during a one-sided phone conversation with her first potential boyfriend as she takes frightened, tentative steps out of her shell.
Both these shattering vignettes are delivered with just the right combination of subtlety and flash by David Hyde Pierce and Kristen Nielsen, respectively. Both create real people with wants and desires existing in a bizarre literary-reference universe. Nielsen, a frequent Durang collaborator, is especially proficient at conjuring up these dual realities, knowing just when to drop her voice an octave or raise an eyebrow for maximum effect. She makes Sonia both a giggle-inducing Debbie Downer and a complex, lonely woman.
Sigourney Weaver, another Durang favorite, does a screamingly funny portrait of an exaggerated version of herself-a narcissistic film star battling aging and self-doubt as she clings to Spike and pushes away the admiring and much younger Nina. Billy Magnussen’s Spike is a gloriously clueless stud, intoxicated with his own beauty, and Genevieve Angelson makes for a charming and sweet Nina. Squeaky-voiced Shalita Grant cleverly keeps Cassandra from being a one-joke pony. Similarly, this show could have been an extended skit, skewering vodka-drenched depressives, but the inventive Durang hasn’t settled for easy comedy. Instead he has written a winking tribute to Chekhov and a piercingly moving family play.
November 25, 2012
Originally Published on November 25, 2012 in ArtsinNY.com
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
Show moved to
John Golden Theater
252 West 45th Street (between 8th & 9th Ave)
Through June 30