Vanya and Sonia . . .

by Carol Rocamora. . .

What would we do, these dreary days, without Christopher Durang?  In a time of darkened theatres, he’s lighting up our computer screens with his wacky and wonderful Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2012 production now streaming on the Lincoln Center Theater website.  Once again we’re back in the Mitzi Newhouse, laughing wild from his most delirious, hilarious play yet. 

Who other than Durang would dare to pulverize the great plays of Chekhov into one heaping, side-splitting serving? A lifelong devotee of the Russian dramatist (since his MFA days at Yale School of Drama), Durang knows The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard by heart.  So he’s thrown them into a blender, concocting a meta-theatrical mash-up, containing characters and references to Chekhov’s hallowed “big four.”

The setting is the family home of Vanya and Sonia (characters from Uncle Vanya) played by David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen.  Except here, they’re brother and sister, and their house is in Bucks County (where Durang now lives).  They’re in “mourning for their lives” (that’s from The Seagull), waiting for their sister Masha (from The Three Sisters), played by Sigourney Weaver, to arrive.  She a great actress (like Arkadina in The Seagull), who is here to cause trouble because she wants to sell the family home (à la the Professor in Uncle Vanya).  Also appearing is Nina, played by Genevieve Angelson, an aspiring actress (from The Seagull) who worships Masha and keeps getting in everyone’s way.   And, of course, they all keep talking about the cherry orchard (from “you know what play”).

Masha has brought along her “toy boy,” the outrageous Spike (Billy Magnussen), who flaunts his almost-naked body for most of the play – especially in front of Nina.  He’s not from Chekhov – nor is Cassandra, the housekeeper (Shalita Grant), who sees into the future and tries to warn Vanya and Sonia about Masha’s plan.  “Beware of Hootie Pie!” she cries (that’s Masha’s real estate agent), while casting spells and causing general mayhem.  Durang’s mash-up spins completely out of Chekhov’s control, as the characters all prepare to go to a costume party – Masha as Snow White, and the others as the Dwarves.  And so on, as the metaphors keep mixing…

Oh, and there are lots of other unrelated theatre, film and literary references, too – including Dorothy Parker, Merchant & Ivory, Pirandello, Judd Hirsh, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, and Norma Desmond (among others). 

Had enough?  It’s Chekhov on speed, and Durang as his absurd-est and dizziest yet.  The cast is a delight.  Kristine Nielsen, a veteran Durang actress, is marvelous as Sonia, who keeps weeping and botching Chekhov’s lines: e. g. “I’m a wild turkey” (from The Seagull).  David Hyde Pierce gives a stunning ten-minute monologue about nostalgia for the 50s and TV series (yes, it fits, somehow).  Sigourney Weaver is appropriately melodramatic, and the entire starry ensemble is having the time of their lives. 

I don’t know how veteran Nicholas Martin could have directed this play (on David Korins’s set) with a straight face.  But then who can resist “laughing wild” with Christopher Durang?

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, directed by Nicholas Martin, a Lincoln Center Theater Production (2012) now streaming on lct.org. (photos T. Charles Erickson)

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