Those learned souls among us who maintain that Anton Chekhov was a great writer of human comedies have an ally in playwright Christopher Durang who finds this breed of malaise, family angst and missed opportunities downright uproarious.
He makes a compelling case. By bringing Chekhovian archetypes into present day Bucks County, PA, by putting them in occasionally wacky costumes, and by making them clearly aware of their classical (and miserable) pedigree Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” drills away at the funny bone. With David Hyde Pierce directing a cast that includes fully half of the original Tony Award-winning Broadway company, “VSMS” is an evening of pretty much end-to-end laughter.
A bit of pathos too. The playwright laces his laugh-fest with a healthy understanding of fear and human frailty. Durang is lining up his present day fears to synch with the same kinds of matters that bothered angsty Anton, and the century-crossing resonance is surprisingly apt. And when you have the privilege of watching Kristine Nielsen – as bitter spinster wallflower Sonia - negotiate her way through a phone call from an admirer, possibly the first time anybody has asked Sonia for a date, you don’t mind at all that “VSMS” is going squishy. (Not to worry: more dropped trou or equivalent absurdity is always on the way.)
Nielsen is Durangian vet, as is Christine Ebersole, as is director Pierce. David Hull may be new to the wars, but the giddy goofiness he brings to every dance, tease, and exhibitionistic peel is spot-on. Though Sigourney Weaver is gone and Pierce is holding the reins rather than headlining, the Taper production is the logical next evolution of the Nicholas Martin-directed Broadway version. Comically speaking, it’s a well-oiled machine.
Durang’s plot is largely a mash-up of plot strands from “The Three Sisters,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard” riddled with contemporary bits that would have blown Anton Chekhov’s spectacles off his patrician nose. We open with 56-year old Vanya (played by Mark Blum) and his frustrated, adopted sister Sonia (Nielsen) on the porch of their Bucks County farmhouse ruminating about the fact that their lives are stuck in neutral.
They are the children of a pair of academes who had the psychologically destructive notion to name their kids after characters in Chekhov plays. “The other children made such fun of us with our mysterious names," Vanya laments in a bit of expository dialog on which the playwright leans rather heavily. "Such was the burden of having two professor parents; and so active in community theater as well.” Uh huh, although truthfully, the explanation is often superfluous.
Perhaps determined or otherwise to live up to their namesakes, Vanya and Sonia slip easily into misery-laden destinies, except anything that might have been on the inside ends up gloriously and un repressedly expressed via outbursts and coffee cups thrown across the room.
The stasis is about to be obliterated. Soon to arrive is Vanya’s sister Masha (Ebersole), a famous actress and first rate diva with boy toy lover (and aspiring actor) Spike ( Hull) in tow. Also turning up is the housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant), a kind of hip voodoo priestess who, uh-huh, possesses the gift of prophecy even if it’s expressed via lines like “Beware the middle of the month. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Beware of chicken with salmonella.”
While Vanya and Sonia took care of the dying parents, Masha worked to pay the bills, building a franchise playing a glamorous serial killer. Five husbands – and quite a few decades later – she’s back at the family homestead (which she is determined to sell) and desperately insecure, clinging to a dimbulb boyfriend who strips down to his underwear at any opportunity. A younger and prettier actress named Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) visit from the estate next door kicking poor Masha’s paranoia into overdrive.
Precious little actually happens in this play – which is also Chehkov-ially consistent – but there is a costume party involving a Snow White costume, dwarfs and attached ridicule and a voodoo doll. Someone has written a play. Someone else will perform it. Durang, a generous writer as well as a wit, gives just about every cast member a chance to showcase comic chops. Nielsen gets two: one of which she does via a crackerjack Maggie Smith impersonation.
Blum takes Vanya’s seeming contentedness – or at least the character’s resignation – and slowly peels away layers until he reaches the time bomb nestled somewhere deep within his gut. When Vanya is pushed over the edge (the final straw is an action that any theater-lover will applaud), our Vanya bursts forth with a monolog that will keep acting students ready for auditions for years. Sister Mary Ignatius has nothing on the “we licked postage stamps” diatribe. The effectiveness of Blum’s work here (in a role originated by Pierce), is the fact that we don’t anticipate this speech coming from that milquetoast man. The witty foil to lunatics is by no means an easy role, but Blum sandbags with the best of them.
On the nuttiness front, Ebersole is very comfortable in diva land while Grant (driven by an unseen force that snaps her entire body into and out of trances) is a scene poacher in her own right. Between them, the two women could hold a helium voice competition. Yeager’s Nina is the straightest arrow of all, but she manages to tether Vanya and his family to some semblance of the real world. David Korins smartly realizes the house’s back view, a large, picturesque open air patio that looks out over ponds, orchards and whatever other Chekhovian trigger is out there to tickle Druang’s fancy.
Ours too. The play is the lesson in Chekhov that will not make you run screaming from the room in boredom.
Read my interview with David Hyde Pierce at Playbill online.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" continues 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun; through March 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$90. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.