Having missed the Lincoln Center Theatre run of Christopher Durang's latest comedy because of the flu, I was delighted to catch an early performance of the Broadway run. This latest work in Durang's forty year career as a playwright is kinder and gentler than most of what preceded it. There's none of the anger that underlies many of his earlier plays and none of the violence that occurs in many of his works. Previously, Durang could make his audience laugh at some gruesome activities. Here we laugh at at his verbal wit and some outlandish comic moments. Throughout Durang's work there has been a love of literary parody. Here Chekhov is present in the title (so is Paul Mazursky's 1969 film, BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE) and in some of the action.
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is set in a lovely house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (where the playwright lives). Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia, both in their fifties, have lived in the house all their lives. Until recently, they cared for their aging, now deceased parents. Neither Vanya nor Sonia work -- the bills are paid by their sister, Masha, a Hollywood star -- and they are prone to lament their meaningless existence in speeches reminiscent of Chekhov. Masha descends with her boy toy Spike, an exhibitionistic would-be actor. She has a history of failed marriages -- her five husbands have all left her, probably because they couldn't deal with her monumental self-absorption. Her decision to sell the house throws Vanya and Sonia into a crisis.
In typical Christopher Durang style, the play is filled with surprising, bizarre, hilarious moments. Much of the action centers on the preparations for and aftermath of a neighbor's costume party. Masha has decided to go as Disney's Snow White and insists that all the other characters go as her dwarfs (Spike gets to dress as her prince). Sonia, however, decides to go as the witch as she would be played by Maggie Smith. Masha is furious when Sonia's Maggie Smith is the hit of the party. There's a sweet, Pollyanna-ish girl next door, Nina, of whom Masha gets wildly jealous, but unbeknownst to her, Spike has eyes for yet someone else. There's also a housekeeper, Cassandra, who, like her namesake, is prone to making dire, but accurate predictions.
The plays is filled with hilarious one-liners, but also long solo moments that take virtuoso acting. Durang couldn't have a better cast for the play. Over the years, he has worked often with his Yale Drama School classmate Sigourney Weaver and with the great comic actress, Kristine Nielsen, and he has again given them plum roles as the not very loving stepsisters. Add to that David Hyde Pierce wisely underplaying Vanya until his long, semi-hysterical lament of the loss of 1950s television in the final scene. Billy Magnussen manages to make the boy toy into something more than a stereotypical dumb (male), scantily clad blonde. His recreation of his audition for "Entourage 2" is one of the many great comic moments in the show. Shalita Grant makes the most of Cassandra's incantations. Everyone but poor Genevieve Angelson as the dippy Nina gets a star turn. Director Nicholas Martin has paced all this perfectly. He and Durang have made sure that every seemingly outlandish moment springs from character.
I saw VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE with a sellout Wednesday matinee audience. More than any show I have seen since Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES (another Lincoln Center transfer), the audience looked like a weekday matinee audience from my youth. They were mostly well-dressed, middle-aged and older "ladies who lunch" with a few middle-aged and older gentlemen sprinkled among them. We all loved every minute of the play and, unlike many matinee audiences, the ladies surrounding me going down the balcony stairs were talking about the play, not where they were going next. What greater tribute could Christopher Durang's masterful comedy receive? The run is limited because the cast is irreplaceable. Get a ticket asap!!
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE. John Golden Theatre. MArch 13, 2013.