Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

You don’t have to be a Chekhovophile to enjoy Christopher Durang’s riff on everything Anton Chekhov ever wrote, but it helps. This master parodist and satirist has been away from the stage for a couple of seasons, but he’s back with a bang with this right on original work with roots in The Cherry Orchard, The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and anything else in the Chekhov canon that Mr. Durang could get his hands on.

All of it is stirred, mixed and shaken so that its tale of 3 siblings who share the fine old house in which they were raised unfolds as naturally as though none had ever heard of Mrs. Chekhov’s little boy, the playwright.

Here we have confirmed old bachelor Vanya (read “gay”) as played by Mr. David Hyde Pierce, one of our finest light comedy players. His hair is now just about a thing of the past, his eyes begin to look a  bit world weary, his smile is now reserved for moments of genuine mirth. He can do more with a simple retort, something like “I don’t think so” than most actors can do with a comic monologue, but he always manages to retain his character’s humanity.  He would never have been unemployed during Broadway’s golden era of drawing room comedies, and he’s doing pretty well even in these edgier times. He and Christopher Durang are perfectly matched, and he’s a joy to watch.

Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver (Photo: © T. Charles Erickson)

Sigourney Weaver endearingly brings us Masha, one of the original Three Sisters, but she’s on other wave lengths as well. There’s a touch of Tennessee Williams’ Alexandra del Lago in her, a lot of Norma Desmond, and she lets us know she’d  be a fine Arkadina in Chekhov’s own  tale of the sea gull.

Kristine Nielson is hilarious as Sonia,  one of the three sisters to whom no one pays much attention until she finds another aspect of her personality at a costume party. A new hairdo, a radiant blue gown as her costume, a pair of high heels and there is a new spring in her step as she emerges at 52 from her cocoon.

Into this mix comes Shalita Grant’s cleaning lady “Cassandra” right out of Greek mythology. She is constantly spreading doom and gloom but she has Cassandra’s curse — no one listens  to her.

Genevieve Angelson  drops in as “Nina”, the sprite from down the road. She doesn’t contribute much but she’s nice to have around as recipient of Ms. Weaver’s jealousy as simple sweet Nina seems to attract the interest of Masha’s boy toy “Spike” who spends most of the play in brief swim trunks.  Like Esther Williams, “Wet, he’s a star”. Billy Magnussen fills the shorts and the role to perfection, disturbing the peace and quiet with which the comedy begins.

It isn’t until after the play is over that you realize it wasn’t really much of a play — it was more an elongated Forbidden Broadway sketch, but there is so much good natured fun in it, I don’t think that really matters.  When you put together a cast as game and gifted as this one, when you turn them over to a director (Nicholas Martin) who knows how to stage comedy, and put them all down in a Bucks County dream house designed by David Korins, you have a strong desire to sublet it and move in for the summer.

It wouldn’t hurt to have a glance at the CliffsNotes to all of Chekhov’s plays before you see Mr. Durang’s play, but there is a lot to laugh at even if you’re not familiar with the source material.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is onstage at Lincoln Center Theater – Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 West 65th Street (Between Broadway and Amsterdam), NYC. Details and tickets.

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Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.  Read more at RichardSeff.com

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