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Friday, March 29, 2013

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Great White Way Dept.: I don’t often get the chance to take a critical whack at a Broadway show, but I saw one recently and decided, for your enlightenment and mine, to weigh in.


PLAYWRIGHT CHRISTOPHER DURANG and his old friend Sigourney Weaver return to Broadway for the first time since 1996's short-lived, much-disliked “Sex and Longing,” in a play that – because it’s by Durang – is unsurprisingly funny but with a surprisingly tender side.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" offers a delightful exploration of the price of fame, ruined lives, late-in-life love and, of course, explosive family dynamics

Domestic tranquility: Kristine Nielsen,
David Hyde Pierce, and Sigourney Weaver
Make no mistake: the show’s determination to drag laughs out of you has the fervor of a manic circus act, and it does so with every tool in the typical Broadway arsenal. Which means we see mugging, outright overacting, improbable physicality, and random pop-culture references (Snow White! Sunset Boulevard!), all carried out within a snob-appeal framework of the world of Chekhov.

There’s even a little voodoo thrown in.

It’s vintage Durang, insofar as it throws together characters with enough inner and inter-character conflict to keep things snapping, but it builds a pleasing backbone as an ensemble of well-developed characters is revealed, shimmering in and out of Chekhov-land as they examine the lives they’ve achieved at the onset of late middle age.

Kristine Nielsen steals the show out from under everyone with a Maggie Smith impression (from virtually out of nowhere, but so what) that’s over-the-top hilarious, and an Act Two phone monologue that builds upon her Smith-take and turns it affectingly poignant.

Which means that David Hyde Pierce’s rant that follows has to top it somehow. It can’t, even with its excessive length. But the rant, which any theater aficionado will treasure, is meant to parallel Konstantin’s rant in “The Seagull” after his play performance goes awry.

Hyde Pierce’s character was named Vanya by college-professor parents, who, as we’re told in a very Chekhovian expository scene at the top of the play, bestowed Chekhovian monikers on all three of their children. And Vanya, reclusive and shot through with self-loathing, has completed Konstantin’s play. And there’s a young actress named Nina (the sylphlike Genevieve Angelson) all too eager to perform it.

She wants to impress Masha (Sigourney Weaver), a famous actress who has stopped by to visit and possibly dispossess her siblings. Masha has in tow her boy-toy Spike (Billy Magnussen), who plays the a self-absorbed young actor to the hilt and is as ready to tweak lonely, gay Vanya’s nipples as he is to bed Masha. Or Nina, as Masha fears.

Ready to Party: David Hyde Pierce
and Sigourney Weaver
There are intrusions by ancient myth, in the person of a housekeeper named Cassandra (Shalita Grant) who, true to her name, has prophetic visions (the name Hooty-Pie will resonate long after the play’s end), and modern myth, as Disney’s Snow White is mined for laughs with an offstage costume party beckoning.

Many years ago I saw a double feature of Kubrick’s “Lolita” and Terry Southern’s “Candy,” and it was fascinating to compare the laughs each film evoked. Kubrick paced his work very deliberately; the laughs clearly occurred when he intended them to. “Candy” was more scattershot, with different moments amusing different people differently. “Vanya and Sonia” falls between. There’s a sense of director Nicholas Martin’s control, but the jokes fly so furiously and are based on so many different points of reference that you get a sense of where the Chekhov specialists are sitting, who are the Disney enthusiasts, who loves to see Sigourney Weaver make faces, and so on.

The show is on a limited engagement, through June 30.

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