For some, a simple given name can determine one’s fate, and in Christopher Durang’s new comedy VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE celebrating its world premiere at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre through October 7, everyone seems a bit trapped by those names. It isn’t necessary to know Chekhov to appreciate and enjoy this offbeat comedy, but if you do, the brilliance of Durang’s writing is even more apparent.

Vanya and Sonia have been living a secluded life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They stayed home to take care of their aging parents (who were academics who loved the classics – hence the names) while sister Masha went off to live her life and be a stage and film actress. Along the way, Masha made a series of films playing a nymphomaniac serial killer, enough money to pay for her parents’ final years and to keep her brother and sister, and live through five failed marriages. That’s about to come to an end. Masha is back in all her neurotic glory with a pec-popping toy-boy named Spike, and her career is in a state of flux. She does not have the money to continue to support her brother and sister, and the house might be sold. Although the basic plot may seem relatively simple and a bit mundane, the characters inhabiting it are far from that, and nothing is as simple as it seems.

Just as his namesake, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) bemoans the failings of his life, a life lived for others. He is over fifty, gay, and living with the realization that life has passed him by. He has obviously not had a relationship of any meaning and is simply in despair.

Sonia (Kristine Nielson), who like her namesake has also lived for others and tries to rationalize her and Vanya’s lives to a point. Although she hopes that there will be something better, she doesn’t seem to sure that it will ever come. Surprisingly, she currently likens herself to a wild turkey that sleeps in a tree and falls out during the night.

Masha (Sigourney Weaver in a role that is light years away from Ripley or Grace Augustine) is a bit of a cross between the “Mashas” of THE SEAGULL and THREE SISTERS. She makes strange choices in men whom she believes to be more than they are, but she also was raised to believe she was a fabulous actress which, judging from the roles which she discusses, is not the case. This is similar to the concert pianist Masha from the three sisters. There, however, all similarities joyously end. This Masha seems to surf on the edge of reality.

Nina (Genevieve Angelson) is true to her SEAGULL alter ego because she is infatuated with the fame of Masha and wants to be an actress herself. Fortunately, her fate, as far as we know, is not the same unhappy one.

Besides Spike (Billy Magnussen) an oversexed, narcissistic young actor, another non-Chekhovian character fits right in with this bizarre group. She is the housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant) who, like her Greek counterpart, suffers from bouts of premonitions that have hilarious consequences and that few believe.

The action takes place over the course of two days on a phenomenally detailed set by David Korins which is beautifully lit by Justin Townsend.

Director Nicholas Martin has chosen to keep the actors’ delivery stylistically similar to Chekhov’s syntax which is beautifully captured in the cadence of Durang’s script. This generally works well, and the disparity between the family members and the three outside characters is clear. However, some of his staging is cumbersome and extraneous involving excessive movement or the need to move furniture. This is just one of a few small issues that lessen the impact of the evening. The second act is a bit long at this point, and the cast needs to work on pacing so that lines do not get swallowed by the audience laughter of which there is a great deal. Since this is a new work, all of these should be corrected by the time that this show opens at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center on October 25.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story because the fun here is discovering all of the glorious quirks that make these characters work. There are, however, two interesting moments in act two. Kristine Nielsen has a telephone monologue which is not only beautifully written but is gloriously performed. She is simply stunning in a quiet moment where the audience cannot help but feel overwhelming compassion for her. She externalizes the pain she has felt since being adopted into this bizarre family at the age of eight so that it is palatable. This monologue alone is “worth the price of admission.”

The other moment, although a bit long and rambling, deals with another Chekhovian theme: the pain and loss that comes with progress. Vanya has lost a great deal of connection to life, and he bemoans the fact that Spike is indicative of the loss of social mores in America in an outburst decries his desire to go back to what he believes were more innocent days when Ed Sullivan, Ozzie & Harriet, I Love Lucy, and dial telephones among other things made life better. Although wonderfully funny and telling, it goes on too long which lessens its impact. It’s still, however, a list of things that have crossed the minds of many of us “of an age” who remember a time when it wasn’t necessary to be constantly attached to the world, a time when people were a bit more conscious of others around them.

It’s wonderfully silly, and I don’t think I will ever forget the visual of Weaver dressed as Snow White or the superb Maggie Smith imitation offered up by Nielsen as the “Wicked Witch from Snow White as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars” which is the kind of thing one comes to expect from Durang’s wonderfully quirky world view.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is one of those interesting shows that appears to be abject silliness initially, but once one digs through the surface artifice and manners, there are universal themes and situations that add up to much more.

Visit http://www.mccarter.org for more information about this production.

Christopher Durang and Cast

Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, and David Hyde Pierce of the McCarter Theatre Company’s production of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE.

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