Greater than the sum of its zany parts
The most entertaining non-musical production on Broadway this season is “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which runs at the John Golden Theatre until July 28. More than its exceptional actors (led by Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce), the show’s biggest draw for us is its writer, Christopher Durang.
The 64-year-old playwright is famous for his wit-sprinkled scripts (“Beyond Therapy,” “Miss Witherspoon”) that cleverly fuse comic absurdity with thematic provocation—from suicide and homosexuality to Roman Catholic dogma! He can derive humor from even the direst situations! Another attraction is the very Pinoy temperament of his characters.
His latest play is no exception. Yes, comedy may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters,” “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard”—but, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” manages to lift their heavy veil of moral anomie as Durang and director Nicholas Martin put a goofy spin on gloomy Chekhovian themes!
So far, the acclaimed hit production has won Outstanding Play honors at the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, New York Drama Critics Circle, and the Off-Broadway Alliance Awards, and is nominated for six major awards at the Tonys next week.
In the play, strained relationships are fodder for riotous comedy: David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier”) and Kristine Nielsen portray middle-aged siblings, Vanya and Sonia. With the help of their voodoo-chanting maid, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), it’s their job to take care of the family’s ancestral home by the lake. But, there’s trouble in paradise!
Vanya is gay, and Sonia is adopted—they’re single, unfulfilled and unhappy. They spend much of their idle time waiting for a blue heron to fly by (there are no seagulls), or arguing about what makes a cherry “orchard.” They lead lonely lives as they bask in the reflected glory of their aging but narcissistic movie-star sister, Masha (Sigourney Weaver)—who’s about to pay them a visit.
Masha arrives with her much younger lover, Spike (Bill Magnussen)—an actor wannabe who takes his clothes off every chance he gets, to the delight of the repressed Vanya. The actress carries very troubling news that would turn Vanya and Sonia’s world upside down:
Because acting projects have become increasingly scarce, Masha has decided to put the house up for sale, to pay for the mortgage! Meanwhile, she wants Vanya, Sonia, Spike and girl-next-door Nina (Genevieve Angelson) to attend a costume party with her—as dwarves to her Snow White!
But, the put-upon Sonia has a different plan in mind: “Why do I have to be a dwarf? I want to go as the Evil Queen as portrayed by Maggie Smith!”
The superlative cast mines the wit that drives the play’s broad humor—and their skills are showcased even more in lengthy, rant-fueled monologues, each a veritable, roll-in-the-aisle show-stopper that socks some sense into the ludicrous situations in which they find themselves!
Pierce knocks his complex, angst-driven soliloquy out of the ballpark, and Nielsen is unforgettable in her hilarious Maggie Smith impression. From the moment the lights go up till the curtains fall, you’ll laugh and cry with Vanya, Sonia, Masha, Nina, Cassandra and naughty Spike—along with the rest of the deliriously happy crowd!
Weaver may not have the comic timing and consistency of her “naturally funny” costars, but her stellar presence, as well as her willingness to make a fool of herself, holds the production together. As far as her performance (and the play itself) is concerned, its totality is greater than the sum of its zany parts!
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