Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Lincoln Center Theater
One of Christopher Durang’s first plays was 1974’s The Idiots Karamazov, a howlingly funny send-up of Russian literature, and now he returns to such themes with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (at the Newhouse through January 13), a play that uses Chekhovian drama as a starting point but soon becomes a series of intricately layered references to everything from Entourage to Greek tragedy. Many lesser playwrights might be content to offer us some laughs based on our assumed knowledge of various literary, cinematic and theatrical sources—and Durang delivers many such laughs—but he is also, as ever, aiming higher. As in Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, one of the major contemporary American plays, his wild comic inventions are always anchored to soulful dramatic instincts. In the airy first act, which revolves around the reunion of movie star Masha (Sigourney Weaver) with her discontented brother Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), there came a point when I asked myself, “Why does this silly play feel so poignant, so touching?” The answer came in the second act, when Durang offered monologues to Nielsen and Hyde Pierce that they both carried off magnificently.
Lately, Nielsen has been Durang’s muse, and she understands intimately his tricky tone. In the first act, Sonia dresses up for a costume party and says that she’s going as Maggie Smith in California Suite, which allows Nielsen to regale the audience with a spookily accurate imitation of Smith’s vocal idiosyncrasies. In another play, this might have been written in just to show off Nielsen’s impression of Smith, and it would work on that level for sheer entertainment. But in the second act, the Smith impression pays off emotionally when Durang gives Nielsen a long speech over the phone in which the lonely Sonia talks to a man she met at the party who wants to ask her out on a date; it feels as if Sonia has never really been asked on a date before. The man didn’t know she was imitating Maggie Smith at the party and so Sonia has to explain to him that her real voice is more ordinary. Durang is reactivating an ancient and barely remembered theater tradition—the telephone monologue for a great lady of the stage—yet Nielsen makes it so deeply felt and vulnerable that it feels like we are witnessing something private and raw. Hyde Pierce does equally well with an ambiguous harangue on contemporary culture in which his character lists a series of random cultural signposts from the 1950s that he misses, a pop culture free association that starts to take on elements of existential dread. Weaver oversells her more two-dimensional character with too much extraneous physical movement, but this is clearly a substantial, meaty piece of theater only pretending to be a minor frolic.