Thursday, October 25, 2012

theatre review VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, McCarter, September 30

I'm just gonna say this right from the start, Christopher Durang's latest play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is going to have a very long life in the commercial theatre.  While Durang has had some successes like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, he's also had his share of misfires (Sex and Longing) or plays that while somewhat successful were very much on the odd side (The Marriage of Bette and Boo) and thus ones that don't get produced a lot.  However, while Vanya and Sonia manages to be a modern tale with likable, though still somewhat odd characters and thus completely in line with Durang's other works, it also has a huge heart at its center and it is that heart, along with Durang's smart dialogue that makes this into a warm, comical gem.  Such a gem that I believe it will be a big hit and become one of Durang's most performed plays.

Having recently ended a sold out run at the McCarter theatre in Princeton, the play now moves to Lincoln Center's Off Broadway Mitzi Newhouse theatre.  We enjoyed the play so much when we saw it at McCarter that we are going back to see it again at Lincoln Center in a few weeks.

Billy Magnussen, Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce
Durang has borrowed liberally from the plots of various Chekhov plays and by putting the plots of those plays into a pot, stirring with a spoon and setting on simmer he has come up with a takeoff on them, crafting a well written comedy set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The play focuses on a set of three siblings whose parents were so literally inclined that they named their three children after characters in Chekhov's plays.  Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen play the three siblings and I don't think you could find a better trio of actors to play Vanya, Sonia and Masha. 

Weaver, as Masha, is a successful movie actress who is always working and left her two siblings behind at the house they all grew up in to care for their aging parents.  The parents are now both gone and Masha has returned home once again to show off her new boy toy Spike, attend a costume party and drop some bad news about that house they're all connected to.    While Masha was away constantly working and making enough money to pay for the upkeep of the house and the expenses required to care for her parents, Vanya and Sonia feel like they have been left behind, trapped and now have no life outside of the house they've been stuck in to care for their patents.  They also are angry at Masha for the exciting life she has led while they've had no lives at all.  It is an interesting view into two sides of an issue that most everyone has to deal with, the care of aging parents and the toll it takes on those involved and how it can potentially pit siblings against each other.  The various themes in the play- sibling relationships, the selling off of the family house, wasted lives and even a play within a play all are drawn from Chekhov's main plays including The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.   But of course this is a comedy and so Durang manages to ring every possible comic bit out of these situations.

Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce
Weaver's ability to make herself not only look like an ass but one that we also root for has a lot to say about Weaver's easiness as an actress and her trust and faith in Durang, mainly due to the on-going professional relationship she has had with Durang since their days at Yale together.  While Weaver is most known as a serious actress as well as one associated with some big action movies, she is also a very funny one.  Her Masha has the right balance of drama and comedy and if the very tall Weaver in a Snow White outfit surrounded by her co stars in dwarf costumes wasn't a funny enough image, she manages to make it even more over the top with her delivery of the material and the way she moves on stage. 

Any fan of Frasier knows that David Hyde Pierce is a gifted comedian.  And while his role as Vanya is more on the subdued side, at least for the first half of the play, he gets a monologue that is triggered by Spike's texting at an inappropriate time that is so expertly delivered by Hyde Pierce that it whips the latter half of the play into a virtual comic frenzy.

While Kristine Nielsen isn't as well known as Weaver or Hyde Pierce, she pretty much gets the best material in the play including an entire sequence of her doing an impeccable Maggie Smith impression.   Nielsen has had her fair share of good parts in the past, including one in another Durang play, Miss Witherspoon, but this is one role that will elevate her even higher in the theatre world.

Genevieve Angelson, Shalita Grant and Sigourney Weaver
Also in the cast are Billy Magnussen as Spike, who has just the right combination of young foolishness, snarkiness and sex appeal to hit all the right notes of the part; Genevieve Angelson as the young woman who lives next door and Shalita Grant as the cleaning lady, who at first seems more of a throw away part, but turns out to be very connected to the actions of the play.  All three are in sync with the comic requirements as well as aren't overshadowed by the three stars. 

I especially liked the running bit with Angelson saying that Hyde Pierce reminds her of her uncle so she will call him "Uncle Vanya" as well as Grant's premonitions and use of a voodoo doll.   Those comical bits are just icing on this comical cake. And with Durang making the character of Vanya a gay man, I'm not sure if Durang is intentionally making the three siblings a pseudo take off of Three Sisters just like Chekov's play or not but if he did it was a pretty genius move.

Production elements are top notch, including an amazing set design by David Korins and character perfect costumes by Emily Kebholz including very funny ones for the costume party.  Director Nicholas Martin manages to stage the comic and dramatic moments nicely while letting his actors constantly shine.   This includes the three actors in lesser parts, who Martin always manages to not always stick in the background where they could be over shadowed by their more experienced and well known co-stars.

Get your tickets to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike now before the Lincoln Center run is sold out.

Official Show Site

Show clips and interviews from the McCarter production:

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