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Christopher Durang Channels Chekhov in McCarter World Premiere; Star-Studded Cast Mixes Regret and Sadness with Absurdist Comedy

Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in the world premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang at McCarter Theatre Center. Directed by Nicholas Martin, the production, which is produced in association with Lincoln Center Theater, runs through October 14. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

When “Chekhovian”—sadness, regrets, introspection, frustration—meets “Durangian”—wild absurdities, astonishing eccentricities, anarchic comedy—the results turn out to be both moving and hilarious. Christopher Durang’s new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opened at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre last weekend, populates its contemporary Bucks County setting with a collection of characters loosely based on figures from the turn-of-the-century (1900) Russian playwright’s somber masterpieces.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is full of contemporary references, to its present-day setting and the world of pop culture, and at the same time imbued with Chekhovian nostalgia and memories of a kinder, gentler past, in this case the 1950s and ‘60s, of these characters’ and Mr. Durang’s youth.

The updating and geographical shift work well. Certain artists’ names become adjectives for a reason, something to do with timelessness and universality, as Emily Mann obviously realized four years ago in her creation of A Seagull in the Hamptons, a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896). Mr. Durang, now 63, describes in an interview how “a few years ago I was at a place in my life where a lot of Chekhov’s characters are, where they’re looking back and asking ‘did I take the right road?’, ‘oh, I didn’t do that and I should have,’ and ‘I didn’t go to Moscow, should I have?’” Mr. Durang had moved to a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which further brought to mind the world of Chekhov’s plays and his characters, who “are living in the country and their more glamorous relatives are off doing things out in the world while the people who are living at home feel like they haven’t had lives.”

The distinguished cast here, under the direction of Nicholas Martin, Durang veteran and former director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Boston’s Huntington Theatre, delivers with style and poignancy this hybrid of outrageous comedy and sad, moving family drama—“Chekhov in a blender,” as Mr. Durang describes it.

Mr. Durang has written several of the funniest plays of the past 40 years, from The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1973), Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and Beyond Therapy (1981) to Betty’s Summer Vacation (1999) and Miss Witherspoon (another McCarter premiere in 2005). Mr. Durang, less acerbic, a bit gentler in his satire and characterizations but no less hilarious than he was in his earlier work, is in excellent form here and this top-flight McCarter production serves the play brilliantly.

Three of the finest, and most celebrated, veteran comedic actors anywhere portray the protagonists here, three middle-aged siblings, given names out of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

Vanya and Sonia, brother and (adopted) sister, live in the old family farmhouse, beautifully rendered in David Korins’ meticulously detailed set. The action of the play takes place in the sunroom with stairs leading up to the second floor and upstage exit leading to the front door and other parts of the house. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of an auspicious blue heron.

Their dull, often contentious, lives are interrupted by the arrival of their self-absorbed, movie star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity. She arrives with her much younger stud boyfriend Spike (Billy Magnussen), a wannabe actor with a penchant for taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants. She summarily announces — shades of Chekhov — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Masha is not particularly sensitive to the needs of her siblings or of anyone but herself, but she is the only one making a living and paying the bills.

The histrionic cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant) appears with a colorful array of moderately reliable psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies and deft voodoo techniques; and Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a young star-struck neighbor, drops in, to Masha’s chagrin, on invitation from Spike.

The principals go out to a local costume party — Masha is determined to commandeer all attention as Walt Disney’s Snow White and to assign all other roles for her siblings and friends, and the action continues through one evening and into the next day.

The six-member ensemble is wisely, shrewdly cast and brilliantly focused, individually and as an interrelated group, in the creation of these eccentric and diverse individuals.

Mr. Pierce, who made his Broadway debut right out of college in the original production of Beyond Therapy in 1982, creates a character like his namesake in Chekhov, but less anguished, more peaceful, hopeful and happy in his consignment to a quiet life of regrets and only the most modest pleasures. Mr. Pierce’s deadpan style and searingly funny comic gift (renown on Broadway, Off-Broadway, on film, and perhaps most memorably as Niles in Frasier on TV) serve him well here, as he helps to ground his more exuberant sisters and captures both the Chekhovian nostalgia and the Durangian hilarity. He explodes into a show-stopping final-act diatribe on the value of “shared memories” — all lost to younger generations of the twenty-first century. Remember those postage stamps you had to lick? Typewriters? Howdy Doody, The Ed Sullivan Show, Davy Crockett and coonskin caps, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Show and Old Yeller, all now replaced by “video games, in some virtual reality, where we would kill policemen and prostitutes as if that was some sort of entertainment “?

As Spike, whose texting during the reading of Vanya’s play set off the declamatory monologue, observes, “Wow, what’s up with him? That was a major flip out.”

Ms. Nielsen’s Sonia provides another unforgettable characterization in her over-the-top, bi-polar miseries and rages and her comical body language and vocal histrionics, as she laments her spinsterhood and her doomed rivalry with her glamorous sister. Even Sonia gets her moment, however, in the second act, as her Maggie Smith-as-Evil Queen at the costume party wins her the modicum of attention and accompanying self-confidence she has so sadly missed in the previous fifty years of her life. Her next-day telephone conversation with a man she met at the costume party is a tour-de-force of Durangian humor combined with Chekhovian poignancy, as we laugh loudly then empathize fondly from moment to tense moment. Durang aficionados will happily recall Ms. Nielsen’s brilliant star turns in Betty’s Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon, along with a host of other distinguished stage and screen credits.

Ms. Weaver, in this part created especially for her by Mr. Durang, who has been a friend and often a collaborator since Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s, embodies the role of Masha with flair, obviously delighting in taking on this extravagantly caricatured version of herself. Ms. Weaver (star in, among many other stage and screen appearances, Alien, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist, Avatar and the upcoming Vamps, in which she plays a vampire) delivers all the right moves to create this ultimate aging prima donna who has been gallivanting around the world. The character does appear as a one-dimensional stereotype, all surface, difficult to identify with, until late in the play when her misfortune — and the fact that she is contemplating a grandmother role in her next movie — brings her down to earth with a certain heartwarming humanity.

The three supporting characters are far from minor. Ms. Grant’s Cassandra, not Chekhovian but straight out of Greek mythology, injects a significant dose of adrenalin into the proceedings with her ominous predictions and her mystical, sassy, high-energy interactions with the main characters. Mr. Magnussen’s sexually charged, narcissistic Spike is another extreme stereotype and one from yet another dimension — certainly out of place in rural Bucks County or Chekhov’s world or amongst any adults, Masha excepted, over the age of 30. Mr. Magnussen makes the most of Spike’s incongruity in this setting to deliver a number of rich comedic moments.

As Nina — more Chekhovian echoes — the youthful Ms. Angelson presents an appealing, sincere and idealistic presence, and more thought-provoking contrast to illuminate the other extravagant figures in this play.

Because of the extensive allusions to Chekhov and also to popular culture of the past sixty years, the best audience for this play, which will move on from McCarter to Lincoln Center at the end of October, would undoubtedly be in Mr. Durang’s late middle-aged age group and preferably familiar with Chekhov’s Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard. But the good news is, even if you don’t qualify on one or both of these scores and even though you might miss some of the jokes, there is still plenty going on in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Chekhov and Durang, along with Mr. Martin and his wonderful cast, provide a hilarious, lively, entertaining evening for all.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will run through October 14 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets, show times and further information, call 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.


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