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Theater Review: Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

L-R: Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen, Genevieve Angelson, David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver, and Billy Magnussen in
David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, and Billy Magnussen in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Part playwright, part mad scientist, Christopher Durang has spent his career experimenting with various concentrations of absurdity. The question he seems to be trying to answer is: How much distilled craziness can a realistic style accommodate? The right proportion raises the baseline sourness of his vision to an almost sublime state of hilarity, as in his 1979 Off Broadway hit Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Yet as some of his later works demonstrated, one drop too much and everything curdles.

If both reactions occur in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, that’s because Durang’s latest is really two plays. Or maybe more. One of them, as the first three quarters of the title suggests, is a Chekhovian drama of disappointment, albeit airlifted to contemporary Bucks County, with Diet Pepsi instead of samovars. Hewing reasonably close to Uncle Vanya, with elements of Chekhov’s three other masterpieces tossed in like chum, this part of the plot features David Hyde Pierce as a fiftysomething gay man and Kristine Nielsen as his adopted sister, both of them single, moldering, and more-or-less resigned to the emptiness of their lives. (He’s resigned with slow burns and sighs, she with bug-eyes and whines.) Like their namesakes, Vanya and Sonia are studies in ambivalence; they not only pine for but resent the past, which in their case includes years of caring for aged, demanding, and excessively theatrical parents. Among Sonia’s fondest memories are that her father called her “his little artichoke” and never molested her.

The laughs here emerge from a naturalistic, if slightly caffeinated, approach to character—and from Pierce’s and Nielsen’s unparalleled timing. But their story and its tone are blown apart with the arrival of Masha, the sister whose Hollywood stardom, based on her role as a nymphomaniac psycho killer in a series of hit films, pays for her siblings’ comforts and idleness. This terrifyingly narcissistic creature, who plans to sell the family home from under the others, and also to dress them as dwarves at a costume party, kicks the absurdity into high gear. As portrayed by a game Sigourney Weaver, she has more poses than a Kabuki mother-in-law; she preens, she swans, and, at one point, when she gets into a crying competition with Sonia, actually licks her paws like a kitten. Her demented expression suggests that Masha is listening for the reassuring sounds of a prerecorded laugh track.

Thus Durang and his director, Nicholas Martin, introduce a conflict of styles to echo the conflict between self-renunciation and self-indulgence: between characters who live in vain and characters who are vain. That conflict is echt Chekhov, but where his grandes dames often tote lapdogs to signify their failures of human feeling, Durang gives Masha a humpy boy-toy named Spike. Though 29, Spike (well embodied by Billy Magnussen) is a thoroughly 21st-century creature: incurious about the past, overly comfortable with his urges, cheerfully amoral. He may be a ridiculous straw man (he proudly lets us know that he “was almost cast in the sequel to Entourage,” called Entourage 2) but he looks fantastic in his lack of clothes, and is in any case needed to set up a conflict that will climax with Vanya’s melting down in a jaw-dropping eight-minute tirade.

That tirade pits old-fashioned civility against newfangled forms of selfishness in social relations, technology, and pop culture. Of course, the evidence is cherry-picked to favor what we assume is Durang’s position. (Scrabble and Monopoly, Vanya cries, have been superseded by games in which killing policemen and prostitutes is thought to be “some sort of entertainment.”) And the rudeness of kids with their tweets and texts is by now a familiar hobbyhorse for grumpy middle-aged men. Still, Durang rides it more stylishly than most, and connects it to a larger and no doubt eternal theme: How do we get past our vanity, of whatever variety, in order to connect to one another?

The real problem is how the different parts of the play connect to one another. Vanya’s aria, and a virtuoso telephone soliloquy for Nielsen earlier, are obviously Tony bait (and Tony-worthy) but add two more ingredients to what is already a disorienting brew of styles. And the execution is uneven. You begin to get the feeling that Durang, in modeling his structure on Chekhov, invested in the best luggage available and then packed it like someone with five minutes to get to the airport. Some of what comes out of the valise is gorgeous: thoughtful, quiet moments but also perfectly crafted comedy scenes that sustain their dizziness for improbably long stretches. Other elements — notably the borderline-offensive black cleaning lady, who’s all sass and voodoo — make you think: Why did he bring that?

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the first of Durang’s plays to make it to Broadway in sixteen years (after an Off Broadway production at Lincoln Center Theater this winter) is the one larded with the most shameless crowd-pleasing elements. Our master absurdist even lets his guard down long enough to permit a hopeful, too-neat dénouement, complete with group hugs and a Beatles soundtrack. Like its Chekhovian characters, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is assembled from mismatched parts and is desperate for affection, which it miraculously earns. In a rare expression of self-awareness that also speaks for the play, Masha says, “I suppose I’m monstrous, but lovable monstrous, I hope.” Right and right.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is at the Golden Theatre through June 30.

Theater Review: Vanya and Sonia and …