Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lincoln Center: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), Masha (Sigourney Weaver) and Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE 

Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) were named after characters in Chekhov’s plays by their now deceased parents who had been college professors and lovers of community theatre in their prime.  Vanya and Sonia devoted their lives to their parents care, remaining in their ancestral home and foregoing any other meaningful personal relationships, while Masha established herself as a successful actress (although she was somewhat less successful on the marital front with five failed marriages to her credit).  Sonia and Vanya are resentful toward Masha who, as they see it, left the entire burden of caring for their parents to them, while she was gallivanting about on the world’s stages and enjoying a glamorous life.  True enough, perhaps, but to be fair to Masha, it was she who provided all the money to maintain her parents’ and siblings’ home and to support them all while she was away; absent her financial support, who knows what might have come of them all.  Now Masha has returned to visit her brother and sister, with her latest boy toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen) in tow to let them know that she intends to sell the house.

The play that Christopher Durang has constructed around these premises, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is replete with heavy-handed allusions to Chekhov’s work.  Vanya’s and Sonia’s ethereal next door neighbor Nina (Genevieve Angelson) might have just wandered in from Chekhov’s The Seagull and then takes to calling Vanya “Uncle Vanya.”  The siblings quibble over whether or not the ten or so cherry trees on their property constitute a true “cherry orchard.”  (And there is at least one allusion to Ibsen as well: Sonia may not see herself as a “wild duck” but she does persist in referring to herself as “a wild turkey.”)  And yet, according to the playwright, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not a parody of Chekhov at all; rather, as Durang puts it “The play takes Chekhov characters and themes and puts them into a blender.”  And, Durang might have added (though he didn’t), he threw a big dollop of comedic good humor into the blender as well.

The net result is a play that gets off to a slow start but then turns out to be rollicking good fun.  The first half of the first act is a bit flat with the characters coming across more as two dimensional caricatures than fully fleshed out individuals.  But by the second half of the first act, and especially in the second act, Durang hits his stride and at least some of the actors are given the opportunity to turn in truly superlative performances.  Which two of them – Nielsen and Hyde Pierce – do with a vengeance.

Nielsen’s impersonation of Maggie Smith playing the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White is absolutely priceless and is one of the play’s high points.  So too is Hyde Pierce’s Chaplinesque portrayal of Doc, one of Snow White’s seven dwarves.  But the play’s finest moment occurs in the second act when Hyde Pierce goes off on a rant about how much better things used to be back in the fifties, when families gathered together in front of their black and white TV sets, sharing the experiences of watching “I Love Lucy” or “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” or “Bishop Sheen” or “Howdy Doody.”

Nielsen and Hyde Pierce really do steal the show although Magnussen and Angelson turn in perfectly adequate performances as Spike and Nina, respectively.  I was a bit disappointed in Weaver’s portrayal of Masha which struck me as rather pedestrian.  But Shalita Grant, the sixth actor in the play, did a fine job as Cassandra, Vanya’s and Sonia’s cleaning lady who is also a soothsayer and voodoo practitioner.

In sum, this is a good (albeit not great) play, providing a couple of hours of cheerful entertainment.  And while a familiarity with Chekhov isn’t absolutely required to enjoy the play, such a familiarity would, I think, enhance your experience.

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