4/4/2021        VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE           Lincoln Center Theatre     


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The scene is the sunroom of a large country estate.  A brother and his adopted sister face another day of wondering where their lives went and what they are to do with the future.  Into their ennui bursts their sister, an aging diva longing to recapture the glories of her youth.


And despite this blatantly Chekhovian set-up, a lot of laughter ensues.


That is the genius of this wonderful play by Christopher Durang, winner of 2013's Tony Award for best play.  Any plot summary would only capture the bleak framework with its echoes of Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard ("Aren't there only nine or ten of them?"  "THEY ARE AN ORCHARD!" "Lower your voice.  They're only trees.").  Yet, the dialogue, the characters, the absurdities are so quintessentially Durangian that you cannot help but laugh, even if your only exposure to Chekhov is that guy on the Enterprise with the funny haircut and accent.


So, here goes.  Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia live in the country estate of their parents, "country" here defined as Bucks County PA.  Their sister, Masha, is an aging actress who has made her name in a series of schlocky horror movies, but it is her income that pays the bills.  She comes for a visit, her new boy toy, Spike, in tow.  Well, his real name is Vlad, and he was almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, but that's

a whole other sub-plot.  Masha drags everyone to a nearby costume party, with (almost) everyone dressed as a character from Disney's "Snow White," including a lovely young thing from the neighborhood ("Nina," of course) who is star-struck with Masha, but more intrigued with Vanya's "bad play" ("I was thinking of that play Konstantin writes in The Seagull.  It's very experimental and mysterious, and I can never tell if it's meant to be a play ahead of its time or a play that's ... rotten.").  Toss in a fortune-telling housekeeper named Cassandra, whose portentous utterings include unhelpful hints like "Beware of chicken with salmonella" or long pseudo-Greek-chorus ramblings that are as funny as well as, sometimes, predictive.  Before the weekend is out, a threat to "sell the house" will be either stymied or realized, the Snow White costume will be upstaged in an unexpected way, Maggie Smith (well, Maggie Smith from California Suite) will sorta kinda join the show, and we'll find out exactly why Cassandra was so concerned about the threat coming from Hootie Pie.


And all the characters will quickly deepen from silly figures in a Christopher Durang play to fully realized people who would not be out of place in a comedy by Chekhov.  The whole thing climaxes in a rant from Vanya that is as unexpected as it is satisfying (at least to those of us of a certain age).  It is one of those monologues you KNOW will be excerpted ad nauseum for future auditions (I'm thinking of taking a crack at reducing it myself).


I've had a love/you-can-do-better-than-that relationship with Durang's plays over the years, preferring his earlier plays like Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and The Actor’s Nightmare to his more recent works.  I found Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge and Miss Witherspoon especially aggravating and disappointing.  But here, he's back in form, layering a semi-cynicism over his characters without losing that emotional core that brings us into his world. Maybe it's the homage(s) to Chekhov that kept him "in line" or maybe it's those allusions that paved the way from his characters to my funny bone.


You may recognize all the above from my review of the 2017 Horizon / Aurora co-production of the play (Not to mention my 2013 “From the Bookshelf” analysis of the script). Sloth is, after all, my favorite sin, and now that Lincoln Center is releasing video archives of some of their productions (beginning with this one), it seemed logical to cut and paste from my own archives.


This is, indeed, the original cast production, recorded October 31, 2012 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre prior to its Tony-winning Broadway engagement.  The cast is in fine form, all delivering performances that may (at first) seem over-the-top.  But the video camera is NEVER kind to performances meant for a live audience (basic projection coming across as unrealistic and hyper-stylized).  But, even before the first scene is over, that “effect” becomes mere “background noise” to the miracle that is Durang’s dialogue.  As Vanya, David Hyde Pierce layers on the Chekhovian ennui and exasperation without losing the Durangian sense of the absurd.  He is near perfect and his performance is the match of any “legitimate” Vanya in my memory.  When he gets to that climactic rant, he lets loose all the repressed anger and loss with a textured emotional reality that went right to my gut.  As Sonia, Kristine Nielsen is superb, jumping from emotion to emotion, thought to thought, with the unpredictability of a pinball on acid.  And when she trots out her Maggie Smith impression, it is comedy gold.  And, in a role written for her, Sigourney Weaver is hysterically moving, channeling her own inner Diva through layers of insecurity and vulnerability.


More to the point, all three (who apparently bonded through the various stages of the development of this play) all share that unbreakable family bond, underscoring their sibling bickering with a basic love and respect that spreads to the younger members of the cast.


And those younger actors are all terrific!   As Cassandra, Shalita Grant (NCIS: New Orleans and the upcoming Season 3 of You) gives a performance more nuanced and complete than you would expect from a “first professional gig” actress.  As Spike, Billy Magnussen (Kato Kaelin on American Crime Story and Rapunzel’s Prince in the movie of Into the Woods) is all shallow narcissism, completely clueless to anyone’s needs and emotions but his own; he is also hysterically funny.  And, as Nina, Genevieve Angelson (Uncle Nicky’s love Sally in a recent This is Us episode) is innocence and ambition, floating through the play like the ethereal molecule Vanya’s play demands.


Staged in a thrust configuration (*) by Director Nicholas Martin, the blocking is fluid and natural, with all aspects of the live audience fully invested.  Of course the camera work here is able to always give the “best view” of the action, so any lapses will be invisible to us.  But Mr. Martin is able to keep the pace lively and the characters securely on that balance beam between the comic and the dramatic.  The set by David Korins is a beautiful construct, stony and rustic, the sunroom perfectly furnished to pass muster as a converted back porch.  And the surrounding floor space gives Spike plenty of opportunity to flaunt his glutes to the first row inches away.


Not to put too fine a point on it, I love this play and I loved this production of it.  I strongly recommend streaming it (it’s free as will be the Lincoln Center archives planned to follow **). Watching it is almost like relaxing in a wicker chair in the sitting room of your summer cottage, looking out the window, sighing, and longing to fulfill a dream.  Like seeing live theatre again!


            --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com  @bk_rudy    #LincolnCenter   #ChristopherDurang #VanyaOn66thStreet)


* I saw David Rabe’s Streamers here {mumble mumble} years ago and can attest to its intimacy.


** Dates are still to be announced for The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, Marys Seacole by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and The Royale by Marco Ramirez



Find access to the free stream of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike here -- https://www.lct.org/shows/private-reels/

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