Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” comically channels Chekhov angst into the present

By Lucy Komisar

Kristine Nielsen as Sonia, David Hyde Pierce as Vanya, photo T. Charles Erickson.

Christopher Durang, always clever and inventive, has taken four characters from different Chekhov plays and transported them to the countryside of Bucks County, PA. Durang‘s comic remix of Chekhov is amusing and gets laughs, even if it doesn‘t always quite hit the mark.

Vanya and Sonia (“Uncle Vanya”), are brother and (adopted) sister who commiserate about their empty lives. They get a visit from their sister, self-centered actress Masha (“Three Sisters”) and her crude boy-toy Spike who could be Trigorin (“The Seagull”), but that would be a stretch. They meet the ingénue Nina (“The Seagull”) who arouses Masha‘s jealousy. There is also a Cassandra (“The Oresteia”) to stir the cauldron with prophecies. Nicholas Martin directs with an in-your-face this-is-a-joke spirit.

The device gives Durang a chance to conflate modern angst with hoary Chekhov anguish. Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), who smashes a coffee cup against the wall, explains, “I had bad dreams last night. I dreamt I was 52 and I wasn‘t married.” Nielsen is a terrific comedic actress who is frequently in Durang’s plays. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) inquires, “Were you dreaming in the documentary form?”

Shalita Grant as Cassandra, Kritine Nielsen as Sonia, photo T. Charles Erickson.

The “dacha” in this case is an A-frame stone house on a tiled sun porch with wicker furniture and hooked rug. Inside you can see a homey spindle-backed chair. Around are grass, flowers, and shrubs. (Set by David Korins.) And, we are told, there is a cherry orchard. Well, maybe 10 trees.

Layering 19th-century rural Russia over modern geography works. Unhappiness spans time and space. As Sonia says, “If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about.”

And it‘s a comic gambit to add Cassandra, played by the wonderful Shalita Grand, who comes in declaiming, with a slightly black southern accent and lots of attitude, “Beware the ides of March!”

“March?” inquires Sonia. “Isn‘t it late August?” And Vanya interjects, “Cassandra, I have asked you repeatedly to please just say ˜good morning.‘ ….Cassandra, I think you take your name too seriously.”

Billy Magnussen as Spike, Sigourney Weaver as Masha, photo T. Charles Erickson.

Masha (Sigourney Weaver), a self-involved 40-something actress, gives us the Chekhov-to-modern version of theater boy-toyism.   She arrives for a visit with the self-involved 20-something Spike (Billy Magnussen), who poses and preens and sashays around, at one point stripping to Calvin Klein briefs (black). Plus ҁa change. Their visit gives rise to some satire about acting teachers and theatrical name dropping.

One of the highlights is Nielsen‘s costume party Maggie Smith takeoff. Channeling the glamorous Brit (in accent), Sonia finally gets a life.

Durang has a brain so stuffed with subjects, that we move from general personal unhappiness to what‘s happening to the world. As riotous Cassandra predicts the weather (“Oh misery”), she reports that chunks of Florida have fallen into the sea and that Arizona is burning.

Durang also throws in a voodoo doll and stickpin shtick to target Masha, who wants to sell the house (she pays the mortgage) out from under Vanya and Sonia, who don‘t work. When Vanya suggests to Sonia that she could get a job at CVS, her scowl blazes.

At the end, Vanya explodes in a tirade about the better days of the 50s, the era of “Father Knows Best,” etc., when people didn‘t experience such angst. His rant about the lost past is a bit overdone. It‘s one of the things that make this funny play not one of Durang‘s most memorable. But even imperfect Durang is better than many comedic playwrights‘ best.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Written by Christopher Durang; directed by Nicholas Martin. Lincoln Center at Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened Nov 12, 2012; closes Jan 20, 2013. [Reopened at the John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street. (212) 239-6200. Closes Aug 25, 2013.] 12/23/12. See review on New York Theatre-Wire.


Click here to donate to The Komisar Scoop

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.