Monday, January 21, 2013

Theater Review: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’ at Lincoln Center

“Are we going to have an evening of Chekhov references?” a character asks in the latest comedy-drama by Christopher Durang, which closed yesterday at Lincoln Center after a run of several weeks. For anyone not suspecting something of that sort after reading the title, it’s already too late.

Well, no matter. References to the great Russian playwright and short-story writer abound, all right, in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but also plenty of allusions to American pop culture, as well as many of Durang’s own playful jabs. I was amused from the opening to the close of the play when I saw it in mid-November.

Perhaps this is not a spoof (though Durang’s written his share of those during his 40-year career, including A History of the American Film and For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls) so much as a homage. You don’t have to know much about Chekhov, nor the other many allusions (to the Brothers Grimm, The Wizard of Oz and Greek tragedy, among others) that dot this play, but it sure helps.

In collaboration with set designer David Korins, director Nicholas Martin (former artistic director of one of my favorite occasions for theater, the Williamstown Theater Festival) masterfully used the close setting of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to meticulously suggest the “lovely country estate in Bucks County” specified by the playwright. The effect of the bucolic setting, however, is to leave “Vanya” (played by David Hyde Pierce) and stepsister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) bored, embittered by how life has passed them by, and increasingly enervated by and snappish toward each other.

This being a reimagining of Anton Chekhov in contemporary terms, though, each character associated with the Russian suffers from a contemporary malady as well as the one afflicting his or her prototype. The long-suffering Sonia of Uncle Vanya is just as lovelorn here, but now she confesses that she may be bipolar, declaring, “I’m a wild turkey” (as opposed to a seagull). Like his predecessor, Durang’s Vanya is the longtime caretaker of the ancestral home, but now he has an additional reason for quiet desperation: he’s a loveless gay man. Masha—in reality, less like the bitter middle member of The Three Sisters than like Arkadina, the self-centered, aging actress in The Seagull—is here a five-times married Hollywood star. The play’s agent of change here is not a thoughtless academic too old for his pretty young wife but an even more thoughtless boy toy of Masha’s, Spike, who, unable to get past the audition for Entourage 2, is now content to bare his chiseled physique before the delighted females on hand (and the equally enthralled Vanya).

In short, as Vanya notes, “If Prozac were around, there would be no Chekhov characters.”

The show did, at times, resemble a two-hour juggling act, heavily dependent on clever stage business that disguises the lack of a substantial plot. Masha, for instance, induces the other members of the household to attend a costume party, where, to her fury, her far-from-age-appropriate Snow White is upstaged by Sonia (dressed as Maggie Smith, on her way to collect an Oscar for California Suite). Later, Spike’s idiotic comment on why Vanya would use anything as outdated as a postage stamp launches the sad-sack brother into a several-minute-long anti-digital rant that Pierce converted into the comic highlight of the show.

The fine cast had varying degrees of fortune with Durang’s material. For all her enduring skill and glamor, Sigourney Weaver couldn’t get much beyond the film diva caricature created by the playwright, her friend and Yale School of Drama classmate. Virtually all of her gestures as the supremely narcissistic Masha are over the top. As the shallow, wildly exhibitionist Spike, Billy Magnussen elicited belly laughs more consistently, but he also couldn’t overcome the limits of the play.

Nielsen, in contrast, wrings every bit of nuance from her depressed middle-aged spinster. Pierce may fare the best, given that more than a decade as Niles Crane furnished him with plenty of practice in endowing a massive fussbudget with more than a few drops of human sympathy.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is, as might be guessed, more than a bit derivative. With each of its literary and pop-culture allusions, it seems to wink at its audience, “You are so smart, so sophisticated to recognize that. You should be on Jeopardy.” 

Moreover, for all its appeal to a progressive New York audience in, for example, its attitudes toward gay rights and environmentalism (its warning about hurricane-force winds was written not during Hurricane Sandy, three weeks before the matinee I attended, but three years previously), Durang’s dramedy was oddly insensitive to stereotypes of groups that fall outside its circle (the prophetic cleaning maid—Cassandra, of course—played by Shalita Grant, is not only African-American but sassy and adept at voodoo, and another character alludes to a physically abusive, drunk Irish father).

Still, all in all, this work is an affectionate tip of the hat to the Russian master of muted melancholy and mirth, and it left me eager to see what the near future holds in store for the Newhouse Theater and the highly prolific Durang (e.g., Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You).

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