Review: Durang's 'Vanya and Sonia' a zany joy

AP News
Posted: Mar 14, 2013 8:58 PM
Review: Durang's 'Vanya and Sonia' a zany joy

NEW YORK (AP) — In most theaters, the sight of someone pulling out a cellphone and texting during a performance is very much frowned upon. In the world of Christopher Durang, the guy texting is actually onstage interrupting a play he's watching.

That's typical of the things flipped around in the playwright's utterly refreshing farce "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which happily has made the leap from off-Broadway to open Thursday at the Golden Theatre.

It's a sweet, witty play with a huge pop culture appetite. Durang flings all kinds of references into his word processor: Angelina Jolie, Snow White, Maggie Smith, global warming, Norma Desmond, William Penn, "Peter Pan," the HBO show "Entourage," Lindsay Lohan, ancient Greek drama, voodoo and, as the title suggests, a big dollop of Anton Chekhov.

It centers on three middle-aged siblings named after Chekhov characters who are uneasily negotiating with age. Two of them — Vanya, a perfectly laconic David Hyde Pierce, and Sonia, a sweetly sensitive Kristine Nielsen — have been sitting around their Pennsylvania home and bickering for years ever since their parents died.

The sibling who escaped, Masha, has become an insufferable movie star and has returned to sell the house, leaving her sister and brother with the prospect of being homeless and penniless. Sigourney Weaver, a longtime collaborator with Durang, plays Masha with flamboyant overacting. She's clearly having a ball; the whole cast is.

Rounding up the cast is Masha's boy-toy Spike (a splendidly buoyant Billy Magnussen), a housekeeper convinced she can see the future (a very game Shalita Grant) and an ethereal neighbor (the fairy-ish Genevieve Angelson).

Director Nicholas Martin thankfully doesn't rush things, allowing the actors the freedom to extend a scene just a little further with merely a look. The company also seems to have added their own little physical jokes to Durang's script, such as some recurring hair-mussing and flirtatious touching.

It helps if you know something about Chekhov — when Sonya wails "I am a wild turkey," it's more fun if you know that's a riff on his "Seagull" — but Durang's genius is the ability to write highbrow and low at the same time.

Leaving the Left
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Masha's arrival unsettles the stifling life of Vanya and Sonia. Vanya shakes off his complacency by dusting off a play he's written and gets everyone to perform it — Spike cloddishly interrupts the show with his cellphone — and Sonia snaps out of her ennui by putting herself out there at a fancy party.

Durang has given Pierce a simply lovely rant about how great growing up in the 1950s was — "We licked postage stamps, and we sent letters!" — and Nielsen has a touching phone call — we only hear her side — from a potential suitor that becomes a touching aria about hope and fear and love.

It's all a bit silly, a tad daffy and very, very sweet. Thankfully, for a show that both lampoons and honors Chekhov's themes, it doesn't end with the sadness that usually dominates that revered playwright's work. In fact, you can hear the Beatles sing "Here Comes the Sun."