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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE
at the Golden

BUCOLIC DISCORD
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Billy Magnussen, Kristine Nielsen, Sigourney Weaver, Genevieve Angelson and David Hyde Pierce/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

If Anton Chekhov were alive today, would he have written this play that all but declares its homage to the Russian master by naming four of its characters after others he’s already made famous? Hard to say, but equally hard to imagine that even Chekhov could have mixed in the Greek tragedy, Disney fairytales and HBO references with the wild irreverence and gusto that Christopher Durang brings to this unlikely, hilarious concoction. But the comedy, which transferred to Broadway from its production earlier this season at Lincoln Center, does evoke Chekhov’s work in more than just namesakes – or even the small bunch of cherry trees that Sonia keeps insisting is an orchard.
 
As the play begins, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), an unemployed semi-recluse in his 50s, is sitting in his pajamas, peacefully sipping coffee and watching the local pond for the return of the blue heron. He’s joined by his overwrought, underappreciated adopted sister Sonia (the always hilarious Kristine Nielsen), and their conversation soon turns to their lives, wasted while they cared for their aging and now deceased parents in this peaceful little Bucks county cottage, while their glamorous sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) became a movie star, supporting them all in relative comfort.
 
So far, this might almost be a modern update of Chekhov, down to the coffee cups smashed in helpless frustration, but then the housekeeper Cassandra (a wonderful Shalia Grant) enters, prophesying doom and urging them to “beware Hootie-Pie!” (an entity they can’t identify yet, but will soon learn to fear). Scarcely have the siblings recovered when Masha arrives for a rare visit, trailed by her boy toy du jour, Spike (an appropriately hyperactive Billy Magnussen), an aspiring actor several decades her junior. After greetings and recriminations, Masha announces that they’re all going to a costume party that evening. She will be Snow White (the Disney version); Spike will be Prince Charming (though not, as he hoped, clad only in his underwear); and the sibs are assigned to be her dwarves.
 
Once the cast is rounded out by the addition of Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a pretty young actress visiting their neighbors, the action unfolds as costumes are tried on and rejected; plans are made and abandoned; alliances are forged and broken; and real estate agents are told in no uncertain terms where to go. It’s a comedy of manners and lack of manners, a mélange of literary and not-so-literary references – and if you’ve ever taken English 129 at Yale, you’ll have a distinct advantage in sorting out the allusions. But this is also a drama about a family that’s become too despondently mired in their own inertia, and all three siblings have to learn to accept some kind of change: Masha, that she’s growing older and maybe it’s time to take that role playing a grandmother; Sonia, that people can like her even when she’s not pretending to be Maggie Smith (it’s a long story); and Vanya, that not everyone under the age of 30 is out to get him.
 
Directed by Nicholas Martin against the bucolic backdrop of the family’s Pennsylvania home, Durang’s comedy echoes Chekhov in its acknowledgement of the mixture of irritation and love that color intimate relationships, whether they’re between brother and sister or lovers. Or, for that matter, prophetic housekeeper and not-especially-tidy householders. Pierce and Nielsen play together particularly well, as his phlegmatic resignation is the perfect foil to her frantic despair. And Grant, with her foretelling and voodoo dolls, is an ornament to every scene she’s in. Weaver embraces her role as aging diva with as much gusto as Magnussen brings to his stupid, studly stallion, who was almost cast in Entourage 2.
 
But more than any one character, Durang’s play itself speaks with a world-weary, sometimes smart-assed voice of wisdom – most especially in Vanya’s rant at Spike about the not-so-bad old days when it could take you hours to dial a phone number if there were a lot of nines in it. The play’s about more than one rather odd family’s coming to terms with middle age, it’s about learning just how much of the coming age you have to accept, and though this family decides to go into that good night together, they’re going to be grumbling. Would Checkhov turn over in his grave? Far from it. He’d be grousing – and giggling – with the rest of them.

 


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