On the heels of a new Off-Broadway production of Ivanov, Chekhov’s first and least-known drama, Lincoln Center Theater has premiered Christopher Durang’s absolutely freewheeling, thoroughly enjoyable and unexpectedly masterful new comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which transports characters and themes inspired by Chekhov’s best-known plays into the present day.
Durang, who penned the savage black comedies The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, has also written satires of various classics including The Glass Menagerie (For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls), A Christmas Carol (Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge) and The Brothers Karamazov (The Idiots Karamazov).
Set in a large country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) are a brother and sister who have spent their adult lives at home to take care of their parents, who recently passed away after prolonged illness, while their sibling Masha (Sigourney Weaver) went on to become a major film star.
On this particular day, Masha has unexpectedly returned, bringing along her young and dumb boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen). Once Masha reveals that she plans to sell the family home, Vanya and Sonia come to the sad realization that they have wasted their lives.
An interesting subplot involves Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a naïve young girl who lives next door and wishes to become an actress. With her encouragement, Vanya pulls out an avant-garde play he’s been working on.
Sonia, buoyed by an invitation to attend a nearby society party (where she recklessly impersonates Maggie Smith), starts to gain some confidence and even lands a date.
Staged with finesse by Nicholas Martin, Durang’s play goes beyond being a parody or a simple homage through sympathetic character explorations mixed with absolutely uproarious comedy. Unlike Chekhov, this ends on a hopeful, even happy note.
Weaver plays up the diva side of her character to gleeful perfection, while Nielsen is genuinely moving as a hermit finally coming out of her shell.
Pierce, who spends most of the show in a fairly restrained mood, finally erupts into a lengthy harangue where he longs for the simplicity of his childhood and declares war on the younger generation. While the monologue is somewhat out of place, it is simply too funny to omit.