The good news is that the traditionally off-the-wall, irrepressibly playful playwright Christopher Durang seems to not only agree with most scholars of literary literature that Anton Chekhov’s plays, notwithstanding their tragic implications, are essentially comedies, but also thinks that some of the great Russian playwright’s most familiar characters are worthy of an even more farcical approach.
Just how funny they should be, or are when scrambled up by Durang, is the question partially answered in his newest play, the often entertaining and just as often perplexing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (now having its world premiere at the McCarter Theater).
Here Durang has cleverly re-imagined and reassembled a few of the most familiar of Chekhov’s characters for incarnation in a 21st-century family drama (using the last word most generously).
But, as Durang emphatically states in a program note that his play is “not a parody,” it only takes a few minutes in the company of his characters to become keenly aware of their unquestionably parodic posturing and predicaments. There is the unhappy, bipolar Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) who “pines” for her emotionally passive, intellectually unfulfilled playwright step brother Vanya (David Hyde Pierce). There is their self-centered, glamorous, successful sister/actress Masha (Sigourney Weaver) who resents being the family bread-winner and effusively gushes over her incorrigibly narcissistic boy-toy lover Spike (Billy Magnussen). Then there is the ranting and raving prognosticating housemaid Cassandra (Shalita Grant), who has been lifted from Greek tragedy. Lastly, there is the demure, young and unsophisticated girl-next-door Nina (Genevieve Angelson) who, as you may guess, is destined to get a lift from Spike.
The bad news, and it’s not all that bad, is that the play’s default setting is a wildly paradoxical world, one in which Durang’s cartoonishly conceived characters only fitfully inhabit the Chekhov-induced orbit assigned to them with any degree of reality. Unquestionably the starry cast that, despite the sometimes over indulgent direction of Nicholas Martin, manages to punctuate and penetrate the rather insubstantial core of Durang’s text. Funny lines and funny business constitute Durang’s game plan with only an occasional time out for a glimpse at a Chekhovian-esque character who may or may not be desperately trying to become flesh and blood.
With inclusions and illusions-a-plenty to such familiar Chekhov classics as “The Seagull,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya,” and “The Three Sisters,” “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” purports to revisit the Russian playwright’s interest in such themes as sibling rivalry, suppressed desires, and the possible loss of the estate. More purposefully we are revisiting Durang’s oeuvre, where just being recklessly inane and irrepressibly funny may be enough.
The play is set in the present with the action confined to the airy morning room of a rustic farmhouse in Bucks County, PA. Handsomely designed by David Korins, the wicker furnishings and generally unpretentious decor gives us a fine perspective of the largely stone home where, following the death of their parents, Vanya and Sonia have drifted into a kind of resigned inertia. There’s discontent afoot from the start as Vanya and Sonia squabble over who should be serving whom coffee.
What’s a few smashed cups hurled across the room in rage by Nielsen, who, as the love-starved, deliriously dotty Sonia reveals her frustrations to her gay step brother? And who could be more demonstrably deadpan in his response than Pierce, who has to remind her that “I march to a different drummer”? Being different is a state that apparently goes unnoticed in this household, particularly when it comes to Cassandra, the by-visions-possessed housemaid who cannot refrain from shouting out the latest doom-and-gloom bulletin as soon as it hits her. The role is played by a wonderfully funny, and intentionally designated scene-stealing Ms. Grant.
Warnings can do little to stop the intrusion of the maddeningly self-adoring, condescending Masha, who, as played with a brilliant disregard for subtlety by the stunning Ms. Weaver, has both good news and bad news to share. Accompanied by her facetiously fawning young lover, and up-and-coming actor, Spike (played with a spirited exuberance in and out of his clothes by Magnussen), Masha brings two bits of news: one is that they have all been invited to a neighbor’s costume party, and two, the house has to be sold to pay the bills. Also invited to attend, only because she seems to hang around waiting to be either discovered or seduced, whichever comes first, is the pretty young aspiring actress Nina (nice work by Ms. Angelson).
While there are occasions for laughter, the primary delight of Durang’s play is watching the quirky Nielsen inhabit a character who drifts from melancholy to mean, from desperation to hope without losing her emotionally tight grip on the play’s most complexly considered character.
With regard for a play that is primarily character-driven — periodically off a cliff — one is likely to be a little disappointed by the main plot device — a costume party that serves to bring Sonia the prospects of a new life — no, not in Russia. But we’ll take what we get as Masha decides that they all go to the party as characters from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Splendid recreations by costume designer Emily Rebholz from the classic Disney cartoon feature get their deserved laughs.
Some judicious pruning is in order for this giddy lark that lasted two and one half hours on opening night. Vanya has a long-winded, wearisome tirade late in Act II about “missing the past” that may be a tour de force for Pierce, but is a digressive, often incomprehensible, drag on the play. At the top of Act II, a terrific confrontation between Masha and Sonia brings long overdue bite and bark to the play. It is, unfortunately, climaxed by a bit of unfunny shtick.
I have great admiration for the scarily hilarious, joyously perverse sociopolitical rants that ignite so many of Durang’s plays, such as “Miss Witherspoon” (originally produced at McCarter before it moved to New York), “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” as well such early gems as “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and “Beyond Therapy” (to cite a few). If I most savor the memory of his most gloriously deranged farce “Betty’s Summer Vacation,” “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is also likely to linger on as well, perhaps longer than I am willing to concede at this time.
I will be anxious to see this play again when it moves to Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater — after additional attention has been paid to pacing, length, and content.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, through Sunday, October 14, Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. $15-$75. 609-258-2787.