Most playwrights will tell you Anton Chekhov influenced them in some shape or form. A few brave ones have even penned homages to the Russian dramatist’s work (Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig), adaptations of his greatest hits (David Mamet’s The Three Sisters, Tom Stoppard’s Ivanov, Sarah Ruhl’s Uncle Vanya, Michael Frayn’s The Cherry Orchard), modern takes on his short stories (Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor), and even new plays using his classic characters (Brian Friel’s Afterplay). But leave it to Christopher Durang to throw everything but the samovar into Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the terrifically kooky new Chekhovian comedy that just opened at Broadway’s Golden Theatre after a late 2012 Off Broadway run.
And Durang could have thrown in a samovar. Fiftysomething confirmed bachelor Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) does bring tea to his sisters, sullen spinster Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and legend-in-her-own-mind actress Masha (Sigourney Weaver). ”Such was the burden of having two professor parents; and so active in community theatre as well,” sighs Vanya, explaining the Pennsylvania siblings’ Uncle Vanya– and Three Sisters-inspired monikers. So there, in the prop department, Durang does restrain himself.
Elsewhere, however he doesn’t hold back in Vanya and Sonia…, Durang’s first Broadway production since 1996’s tepid Sex and Longing. On top of all things Chekhov — Vanya’s experimental play and a fresh-faced actress neighbor named Nina (Genevieve Angelson) are nods to The Seagull — Durang weaves in Greek mythology! The housekeeper, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), has visions — not to mention a surprising talent for voodoo. There’s gratuitous skin-baring: Spike (Billy Magnussen), Masha’s much, much, much, much, much younger ”beloved,” strips to his skivvies in almost every other scene. And please, don’t get the playwright started on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
The play may be — okay, is, definitely — overstuffed. Fortunately, the performances are first-rate. Durang’s old Yale Drama pal Weaver and Nielsen, his favorite character actress of late, know his brand of eccentric comedy better than anyone. Nielsen, especially, is at her bug-eyed, bobble-headed best — really, this is a good thing, particularly when she’s impersonating Maggie Smith. And sure, Hyde Pierce’s second-act harangue against technology, TV, and self-stick postage stamps goes on about five minutes two long — though the Frasier star’s delivery couldn’t be more spot-on. You’ll swear you see the smoke coming out of his ears!
But restraint has never really been Durang’s thing. (After all, this is the man who turned the war on terror into a comedy called Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.) Whatever he borrows from long-dead Russian playwrights, Vanya and Sonia… is entirely, indisputably, oh-no-he-didn’t classic Durang. B+
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