Laughs and tenderness combine in this masterpiece

Vanya1

Excerpt from my May 16, 2013 column in EMC News

Rarely, a production comes along that is so outstanding that it’s worth a trip to New York for the sole purpose of catching that one show.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is one such play.

Don’t mistake this masterful work for fluff. There are deep themes and messages lurking within the hilarious and at times chaotic script. Despite the craziness, it’s gently life affirming. Perhaps it fits radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s philosophy of insanity being a sane response to an insane world.

Christopher Durang writes biting and crazy satire, but he’s added gentle spices to the mixture. The New Yorker describes Durang as one of the funniest dramatists alive.

“It’s my getting older play,” said Durang, in a NYC-ARTS Profile. “When I was young, I had a lot of nihilistic feelings. I was kind of depressed back then. People can accuse me of being sentimental, but I don’t want to send people home hopeless anymore. I really don’t like doing that.”

“I think of it more as gracious,” said David Hyde Pierce. “It’s a gracious way to treat the characters and treat all of Chekhov’s characters, by connection, who have lived since they’ve been written in that state of unfulfilled longing.”

One line in the play particularly stands out: “You must always get your hopes up.”

In Vanya, Durang takes Chekhov characters and themes, adds considerable doses of silliness, and turns on the heat.

Director Nicholas Martin has a perfect cast for this wacky yet sublime journey.

“The cast is so singularly accomplished,” said Megan Savage, one of Vanya’s producers. “I can’t speak highly enough of them. Sigourney (Weaver), David (Hyde Pierce) and Kristine (Nielsen) have all worked with Durang before. That really informs their performances. You can see how much they love the material.”

Savage, a Harvard grad, got into theatre early.

“I saw my first play when I was four,” she said. “When I realized it was a thing you could do as a job, then I got into acting. During college, I transitioned to producing. I like the organizational components.”

Now she’s hit big-time Broadway and is thrilled with her first show. She explained that you can read a book about other lives and places, but when you attend a play or musical, you experience situations first hand. In other words, theatre is 4D. Not only do you experience the performance in visual 3D, you also experience a living emotional dimension.

It’s not fair to call Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike a mere comedy, although it is the best comic production I’ve seen in a very long time.

“It’s a comedy that packs an emotional punch,” said Savage. “It’s a great example of funny and moving at the same time.”

In the play, the three siblings’ academically oriented parents were active in community/amateur theatre and gave their children Chekhov-inspired names: Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Sigourney Weaver).

Kristine Nielsen is a comic genius. In one sentence, she can break your heart and make you laugh: “My relationship with men is limited to ‘Here’s your change ma’am’ at the supermarket.”

No one can do deadpan, sigh, or toss in an acerbic remark with a touch of innocence as well as David Hyde Pierce. The multiple Emmy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award-winner (for his role as Niles Crane in Frasier) is a master of intonation, body language and timing.  Hyde Pierce excels in live theatre and outdoes himself in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He gives the funniest and longest—it’s at least eight minutes long—rant I’ve witnessed on stage in a long time.

Along with the Chekhov-named siblings, you’ll meet a strangely lovable crew: Cassandra (Shalita Grant) is a soothsayer/housekeeper. Cassandra isn’t particularly adept at either task, which adds to the humor. Spike (Billy Magnussen) is Masha’s gorgeous boy-toy who gives one of the season’s funniest and most outrageous performances. Nina (Genevieve Angelson) enters as a wide-eyed, celebrity-adoring young woman. Put these acting ingredients together and a theatrical feast boils in front of you.

Siblings Vanya and Sonia have spent their lives at the family farmhouse caring for ailing parents, while Masha became a famous actor, gallivanting around the globe.

Sigourney Weaver plays Masha, the narcissistic sibling, in an over-the-top style. Masha pays for the family home upkeep, but offers no emotional support. She arrives for a visit, accompanied by Spike. Masha feels threatened by the arrival of the much younger, beautiful and waif-like Nina, in whom Spike appears to take an interest.

You sometimes hear of a performer stealing the show. In this case, the entire cast steals the show.

“Everyone has a chance to shine,” said Savage. “Each actor has a great monologue moment. One of the best is Kristine’s phone call. It’s such a hard scene to play if you want to make it really seem like someone is on the other end. Kristine is so genuine and runs the gamut of emotions. I’m blown away by her.”

How good is the acting? Four actors (Grant, Hyde Pierce, Magnussen and Nielsen) from the play are nominated in their respective Tony Award categories. The play and director also received nominations.

You don’t have to know Chekhov’s work to enjoy this play. If you do, it doesn’t make it funnier, but it does offer humor that is more sophisticated.

Neither do you need to know the source material for references to Ed Sullivan, Topo Gigio, Señor Wences (and the talking hand) or Bishop Sheen. But if you are familiar with them, it adds to the hilarity.

Underlying the play is a sense of disconnectedness in the current digital age and a longing for the past, when family and personal connection were important.

The first act moves along briskly. After Act 1, I thought things couldn’t get funnier. Wrong. The second act explodes. Members of the audience laugh so hard they struggle to stay in their seats. For my first viewing, I watched the action a few rows from the front. I didn’t have a clue how the rest of the audience reacted. I was laughing too hard myself. On second viewing, I watched from the rear of the balcony and realized the whole theatre was shaking from the audience laughter.

Act 2 reaches a peak during David Hyde Pierce’s monologue/rant, which he refers to as “a stream of consciousness speech about change and loss.”

To summarize his rant: people have lost ways of connecting. Pierce highlights many of them in his monologue that ranges from pitiful plea to outrage. “There are no shared memories anymore.”

Amid the craziness of this play flows a current of tenderness

There’s a fulfilling sense to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, as if Durang and his characters had been building a comfortable nest, and then leave us to enjoy it. At the end of this wild ride, my body ached from laughing, yet I felt a sense of innocent wonder.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is scheduled to end on June 30, so make your plans soon. With the Tony Awards coming up on June 9, all eyes are on the contenders, and tickets could become scarce, especially if Durang’s play takes home some awards.

For more information: http://www.vsmsplay.com. Performances are at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York. Two-and-a-half hours, with one intermission. For tickets, the best rates online can be found at http://www.broadwaybox.com or http://www.telecharge.com.

Good news: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike just extended its run to July 28: http://broadwayworld.com/article/VANYA-AND-SONYA-AND-MASHA-AND-SPIKE-Extends-Through-July-28-20130516

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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