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.
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.”
Churning Chekhov into modern-day chuckles is the essence of Christopher Durang’s slight and happy diversion, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Seen Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center last year, the play opened Thursday on Broadway with ample yuks, snazzy design and a six-actor cast, led by David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver, intact.
Hulking sweet fizzy drinks and their nasty side effects have lately come under fire. But as in the show’s earlier run, the only downsides of Christopher Durang’s gleefully silly, if mostly empty-caloried, Big Gulp of a comedy are smile lines and overstimulated funny bones.
And maybe mild orbital ache from rolling eyes at the sheer scope of the mugging. This riff on the Russian writer’s mopes and dopes isn’t subtle.
Set in bucolic Bucks County, Pa., in a charming old house made to inspire real-estate envy, the story follows three fiftysomething siblings whose crosses to bear began with their names drawn from Chekhov.
“Such was the burden of having two professor parents, and so active in community theater as well,” says droopy gay Vanya (Hyde Pierce) to his loopy lovelorn sister, Sonia (Kristine Nielsen). They’ve idled away their lives, while sister Masha (Weaver), an insecure, much-divorced movie actress, has gotten rich and famous starring in the cheesy “Sexy Killer” franchise.
Masha arrives with ripped boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen, irresistibly dippy) and a disturbing plan to sell the family home. It’s “Uncle Vanya” meets “Cherry Orchard.”
And when doe-eyed neighbor Nina (Genevieve Angelson, a delight), a wanna-be actress, drops by, “The Seagull” gets in on the act. Don’t forget nutty cleaning woman Cassandra (Shalita Grant, wonderfully wacky), who forecasts doom and dabbles in voodoo.
In his more provocative past plays “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” and “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them,” Durang bared his fangs. Here, he’s at his sweetest and most generous. All six actors are gifted with juicy lines and, under the smart direction of Nicholas Martin, deliver on them.
Weaver, who goes way back to college with Durang, is her most amusing when she’s at her most controlled — think “Working Girl” — and not at broad strokes. She pushes hard — sometimes too hard — as Masha, but scores points for socking it to her own starry aura.
Huggable Hyde Pierce infuses sad-sack Vanya with radiant warmth and goodwill. He’s so good at playing it buttoned-up, it’s fun to watch him lose it in a shamelessly nostalgic rant against the age of social media.
Saving Ms. Invaluable for last, Nielsen, another Durang go-to girl, dazzles with over-the-top antics, Maggie Smith mimicry and assorted outbursts. But she knows how to milk a poignant moment, too — specifically Sonia’s phone call from a man she’s met at a party.
Watch and learn: Like the best comic pros, Nielsen breaks your heart as she tickles it in the funny-sad scene. And, briefly, she elevates “V&S&M&S” to more than just a feather-light fancy.
Few Chekhov-inspired shows make you laugh out loud, and repeatedly at that. In fact there’s probably just one such rare bird on the planet: Christopher Durang’s riotous “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Luckily for us it just opened on Broadway, after a recent run Off — and it’s the rare transfer where the show improved.
What’s changed? At first glance, nothing: Cast, director and set are repeats from the Lincoln Center stint last fall. And yet Nicholas Martin’s production has gotten noticeably better: It’s simultaneously sharper and smoother, and the one weak performance — that of Sigourney Weaver — has grown more nuanced and funnier.
As before, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen play Vanya and Sonia, sad-sack, middle-aged siblings who share a bucolic Bucks County home (rendered by set designer David Korins with life-size accuracy).
A visit from their movie-star sister, Masha (Weaver), threatens to upend their quiet life.
Oh, those Chekhovian names? The trio’s late parents were college professors who dabbled in community theater. But Durang (“Beyond Therapy,” “Miss Witherspoon”) treads lightly, and the show’s a ton of fun even if you can’t tell your “Seagull” from your “Uncle Vanya.”
That’s because, aside from its bittersweet Russian undertones — paralyzed by inaction, Vanya and Sonia think they’ve missed out on life — this is the kind of full-on comedy that’s sadly rare on Broadway.
Durang pulls all the stops: one-liners and their matching outlandish reactions. Outrageous dress-up. Zany slapstick.
Much of the last is supplied by the irrepressible Billy Magnussen as Masha’s much younger boyfriend, Spike, a blissfully stupid stud who flirts with everybody.
“He’s so attractive,” sighs Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a young neighbor. “Except for his personality, of course.”
But the comic business only looks carefree: After months of doing this play, the actors are in total sync not only with each other, but with their roles.
Hyde Pierce and Nielsen make the most of their monologues — his a fierce tirade about how Vanya preferred the life of his youth; hers a heartbreaking phone call setting up a date — and their timing is flawless. Hyde Pierce is a master of the slow burn, while Nielsen’s wild-eyed Sonia often looks as if her train of thought has a loose caboose.
As their cleaning lady, Cassandra — a seer prone to seemingly random warnings — Shalita Grant has dialed down the kooky, but the award for most improved goes to Weaver.
Masha’s business is pretending, starting, of course, with her age: “I’m only 41,” she declares. “Possibly 42.”
This character has turned her life into a performance, but Weaver makes it clear that Masha is, in fact, a terrible actress who can’t convincingly fake anything. When poor Sonia upstages her at a costume party, there’s poetic justice in that reversal — not to mention richly earned laughs.
Did you hear there’s been an outbreak of mugging in a certain bucolic neighborhood of Bucks County, Pa., where many a moneyed Manhattanite has a summer retreat? I guess you’re not safe anywhere these days.
Kidding! The mugging I refer to is not in the actual Bucks County, but in the fictional version found in Christopher Durang’s comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which opened on Broadway Thursday night at the John Golden Theater after a sellout run Off Broadway. And the only people getting conked on the head in this epidemic are audience members, fielding a barrage of theatrical in-jokes. They seem to be taking to it quite nicely.
The lapel-grabbing style of comic acting known as mugging is not always a theatrical offense. In fact when undertaken by the Durang specialist Kristine Nielsen, who brings much of the helium to the play’s series of variations on Chekhovian themes, broad comic acting is raised to the level of high art.
I can think of no more deliriously funny moment from this theater season than what transpires when Ms. Nielsen, playing Sonia, a middle-aged, morbidly depressed woman, swans onstage in a sequined evening gown, with a tiara shimmering on her head and a new glitter of self-confidence in her eyes. When Sonia proceeds to explain why she is thus attired, the theater erupts in booming gusts of laughter that practically shake the seats. It would be unfair to spoil the fun for those holding tickets to the show, but I can reveal that Sonia is dressed for a costume party in a highly conceptual manner, and that Maggie Smith figures prominently in the concept.
Ms. Nielsen’s lunatic riff may be the highlight of this uneven but intermittently delightful comedy, which is directed by Nicholas Martin and also stars David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver as Vanya and Masha, siblings of the sad Sonia. The names, of course, are all swiped from notable characters in Chekhov plays. The country-house setting is also borrowed from the work of that Russian master, as are the self-delusions and self-pity that plague the central characters, all of whom have reached the difficult age when life’s path has narrowed uncomfortably, and there is little point in turning around and looking to take another, more rewarding course.
Vanya and Sonia have been living in their pajamas, spiritually speaking, for their whole lives. They essentially never left the home in which they grew up and in which their parents died. The house’s upkeep — and theirs too — has long been financed by Masha, a movie star who returns home soon after the play begins with a shiny new boy toy, a set of walking and talking pecs and abs with the refreshingly un-Chekhovian name of Spike (Billy Magnussen).
Masha’s preening egoism ruffles the feathers of her siblings, who have always envied her the shining success that reflects back to them their contrastingly miserable lives. (“I am a wild turkey,” Sonia madly mutters repeatedly, echoing Nina in “The Seagull.”) When Masha blandly announces that she thinks it’s time to sell the house — the upkeep has begun to strain her finances, now that her action-movie paychecks have evaporated — Vanya and Sonia find themselves facing a future even bleaker than their dreary pasts.
In Durang Land, of course, heartache is generally fodder for belly laughs. There are enough sprinkled throughout his latest play to keep the temperature in the theater from cooling for long, although this romp through an Americanized version of Russian anomie is more a series of loosely connected set pieces than a cogently put-together play. (With little more than a postage-stamp of plot to embroider, Mr. Durang has his characters dress up as Disney cartoons and wander off to a costume party.)
Mr. Pierce delivers Vanya’s enraged rant about the debased nature of contemporary culture with sputtering, funny zest. Playing Cassandra, the housekeeper who dabbles in both classical Greek drama and voodoo (go figure), Shalita Grant swaggers away with just about every scene she’s in, thanks to Mr. Durang’s hilariously demented monologues full of fantastically dark premonitions and mashed-up quotations from the theatrical canon. Mr. Magnussen bounds around the stage gymnastically as the self-satisfied Spike, crisply capturing the Teflon egoism of the young and the gorgeous. (He doesn’t notice the shiv buried in the compliment when Sonia, after hearing for the umpteenth time that Spike “almost” landed a role in “Entourage 2,” sweetly observes, “Maybe you’ll come close to getting another part soon.”)
I wish I could say that Ms. Weaver holds her own amid this skilled comic company, and in a sense she does. The audience laps up her character’s absurd narcissism, delighting in the way Masha sprinkles Splenda over every patronizing swipe at her beloved brother and sister. But while Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Pierce can do big, broad acting and somehow give it the texture of finely spun glass, it comes across less felicitously in Ms. Weaver’s hands. (This surprised me, given her history with Mr. Durang dating back to their days at the Yale School of Drama.)
At one point Masha is asked by the aspiring actress Nina (a charming Genevieve Angelson) to define the difference between film and stage acting. “In film you are acting in front of a camera, and you need to speak in a normal voice,” she earnestly explains. Raising her voice, she adds, “And onstage you are in a sort of wooden box in front of people who are looking at you, and you must speak more loudly. So that they can hear you.”
This dum-dum explanation would be much funnier if Ms. Weaver had not seemed to be taking it so literally from the get-go. Throughout the play, she bellows her lines as if she had a megaphone stuck in her throat. To be fair, it cannot be easy to play a character who is in some sense a sendup of yourself. But I found Ms. Weaver’s athletic attempts at physical humor to be a bit embarrassing.
Still, like everyone involved with “Vanya and Sonia,” which has been smoothly transferred to a proscenium theater after its premiere at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse, Ms. Weaver certainly seems admirably game to try anything for a laugh. Judging from the jubilant reception the play received both times I saw it — Off Broadway and now on — audiences tired of reading headlines about the stalled recovery are up for anything that delivers the release of a heedless good time too. I can imagine many satisfied patrons leave the theater muttering, “Now if only real Chekhov plays were this funny, maybe I wouldn’t keep falling asleep.”
Christopher Durang, of all unrepentant scamps, was inducted into the very upright Theater Hall of Fame in January. And now, with a cast including Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce, he has one of the funniest comedies that Broadway has seen in seasons. This is all delightful.
It matters, but not enough to hurt, that "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is not dangerous enough to count as one of my favorites of his blithely demented satires. And, true, Broadway hasn't exactly been luxuriating in a golden age of comic delirium these days.
But the new play, which seemed too tidy and almost mellow in its Off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center Theater last fall, feels bigger and broader and more -- dare we say it -- commercial within Broadway expectations.
This is Durang's deadpan mashup of Anton Chekhov's themes and his own, directed with exquisite glee by Nicholas Martin, set in the yard of a gentrified stone farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa. Pierce (irresistibly long-suffering), Weaver (young Durang's formative muse) and Kristin Nielsen (his current one) play aging siblings whose parents, amateur thespians, named them after Chekhov characters.
Masha (Weaver, majestically foolish) is the glamorous visiting actress who escaped without having to care for their dying parents. Dreary Sonia (Nielsen, a gelatin mold of shimmering passive aggression) moans, "I am a wild turkey," if not a seagull.
Masha brings home her hunky boy-toy -- played with a spectacular sense of raunch-puppy awareness by Billy Magnussen. The ethereal young Nina (Genevieve Angelson) brings artistic idealism from next door and, just to mix up the references, the housekeeper named Cassandra (the irrepressible Shalita Grant) reels with premonitions and a voodoo doll.
Masha is going to a costume party as Snow White (mercilessly perfect costumes by Emily Rebholz), which gives us the rare chance to see Weaver unhinge her fine sense of the ridiculous as her narcissistic beauty collapses into acting its age. Nielsen has a lovely monologue as the dull sister blossoms, and Pierce delivers a stirring, climactic speech about a world "with no shared memories."
Alongside the sentiment is Durang's deeply touching faith in the ability of a cartoon style to sustain serious -- no cosmic -- purpose without sacrificing trust in the transcendent pleasures of the wicked and silly. Broadway can handle that.
Don't be deceived by the dazzling zaniness of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. In Christopher Durang's hugely entertaining new play, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Golden Theatre, there's a perilously fine line between comedy and tragedy.
And why shouldn't that be so? After all, three of the four title characters were named, by their late parents, after Chekhov roles; and few contemporary playwrights have proven as deft as Durang as mining both the absurdity and the dangers of human folly.
That's not to say that Durang's Vanya approaches the depth of Uncle Vanya -- or The Three Sisters or The Seagull, to cite two of several other Chekhov classics that Durang alludes to here. But in its own deliciously madcap way, the new work offers some keen insights into the challenges and agonies of 21st-century life.
Director Nicholas Martin, helming the same fine cast that introduced Vanya last year -- first at McCarter Theatre, then at Lincoln Center -- fully serves the wit and whimsy of the text, which Durang has sharpened. David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen play Vanya and Sonia, two middle-aged siblings -- Sonia was adopted, as she will repeatedly remind us -- who still live together in their elegantly rustic childhood home.
That house is now owned by another sister, Masha, a movie star who has supported, from afar, Vanya and Sonia's lifestyles, which seem focused on moping -- Vanya in that dry, deadpan manner in which Pierce excels, Sonia with a more melodramatic sense of self-pity, which the superb Nielsen captures to comic perfection.
Their domestic tension is heightened when the pathologically self-absorbed Masha -- played to the hilt by a hilarious, and astonishingly well-preserved, Sigourney Weaver -- flits into town, accompanied by her latest, much younger beau. That would be Spike, an aspiring actor and full-fledged doofus whose vanity and cluelessness are vividly embodied by a frequently underdressed Billy Magnussen.
There's also a neighborhood ingenue, Nina, portrayed with wry wonder by Genevieve Angelson, and a soothsaying housekeeper, fittingly named Cassandra, who keeps warning of impending doom.
Despite Cassandra's dark premonitions -- and with a little help from her voodoo skills, with which actress Shalita Grant has great fun -- Vanya ends on an upbeat, even uplifting note. Mind you, that's only after the three central characters have had moments of painful self-awareness -- some quite humorous, but all poignant in their fashion.
Vanya's meltdown provides the emotional climax. In a desperately nostalgic, mordantly funny rant, he laments the lack of true community in a culture that is, technologically speaking, increasingly connected. "I'm worried about the future," he admits.
We all should be, Durang seems to tell us -- but not so much so that we reject it. "You must always get your hopes up," Nina says near the end; and that, for all of Vanya's exhilarating irony, is its ultimate, unironic message.
Christopher Durang’s play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” opened March 14 at Broadway’s John Golden Theater following an Off Broadway run at Lincoln Center Theater, where the show opened in the fall. The following is Marilyn Stasio’s review of the Off Broadway production, which ran in Variety Nov. 12. Credits have been updated below to reflect changes for the Broadway transfer.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is brainy and witty and clever and cute. Christopher Durang’s surreal comedy of manners answers that perennial prayer for shows with higher aspirations than to pass themselves off as sitcoms. In a great leap of imagination, Durang lifts characters and storylines from four Chekhov plays (plus a tragedy by Aeschylus) and transplants them from provincial Russia to present-day Bucks County. In this hilarious mashup, classic themes of existential loss and longing are given a modern spin and endlessly inventive comic twists for an inspired cast led by Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce.
David Korins’ romantic set (bathed in Justin Townsend’s limpid lighting) of an old stone house in bucolic Bucks County is an authentic American version of those Russian country estates that represent heaven-on-earth to characters in Chekhov’s plays.
Vanya, who is played by that king of deadpan, Pierce, and his half-sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, another regal clown) are also familiar figures. Like their namesakes in “Uncle Vanya,” they’re the poor, forgotten drudges who have wasted their lives working to keep up the family estate while their glamorous sibling, Masha (frequent Durang collaborator Weaver, as funny as you’ve ever seen her), swans around the world becoming rich and famous and completely forgetful of them.
Vanya and Sonia are the very models of midlife discontent, disappointment and despair. As perfectly matched as a salt-and-pepper set, Pierce and Nielsen play the pathos of this wretched pair without acknowledging the howling humor of their lugubrious characters.
Borrowing freely from other plays, Sonia sighs over the beautiful blue heron that comes to feed at the pond, and compares herself to a wild turkey. She also declares herself to be in mourning for her life. Which causes Vanya to snap: “I hope you’re not going to make Chekhov references all day.” Durang is a master of the whiplash one-liner, and Pierce and Nielsen are masters at delivering them with perfectly straight faces.
Observing her own midlife crisis in her own flamboyant style, Masha bursts on the scene in a spectacular wardrobe (by Emily Rebholz) and towing her current boytoy, Spike, a narcissistic exhibitionist in Billy Magnussen’s uninhibited performance. Ignoring the dark warnings from housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant), Masha bullies everyone in her domestic kingdom. Eyes glittering with gleeful malice, she takes satisfaction in admitting that she’s a monster — “but a lovable one.”
Monster she may be, but Masha is also tragically funny when Nina, a lovely naif played by Genevieve Angelson, wanders in from “The Seagull” to dash her schemes to bits. It’s youth and innocence against age and exhaustion, and we all know how that’s going to end. But not without a fight — and many, many laughs.