NYTIMES: Underneath Pajamas, Naked Depression

By CHARLES ISHERWOOD | March 14, 2013

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.”

Source: The New York Times

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