Monday, November 26, 2012

Chekhov Vaudeville

As its name suggests, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a parody of Chekhov. It’s been a while since Durang has written one of these delirious literary/dramatic-literary burlesques; this one harks back to The Idiots Karamazov (which reimagines Dostoevsky’s Karamazov brothers as the Tyrone family from Long Day’s Journey into Night) and his one-act take-offs of The Glass Menagerie and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (titled, hilariously, A Sty in the Eye). Vanya and Sonia is messy and overextended and it seems to stall in the middle of the second act. But it’s a vaudeville, so its structural problems don’t matter all that much – especially when it has so many funny lines and Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce in the leads. Fitted out in a deluxe production staged by Nicholas Martin at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse space, it made me laugh louder than any other recent comedy.

The setting is a farmhouse in Bucks County where Vanya (Hyde Pierce) and his adopted sister Sonia (Nielsen) live a sedentary life with only each other and the cleaning lady, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), for company. Their sister Masha (Weaver) has a successful career as an actress so she pays the mortgage on the place, which they inherited from their parents, professors and community theatre performers who had the notion to name their children after Chekhov characters. Masha, who arrives for the weekend with her studly, half-brained young lover Spike (Billy Magnussen) – not so much to visit her family as to attend a costume party at the old Dorothy Parker house down the road – is a narcissist against whose success the bitter, depressed Sonia is constantly measuring herself. Masha has a small child’s need for attention; she can’t bear to be supplanted even for an hour. Her choice of costume is Snow White (the Disney version; her sublimely silly outfit was the inspiration of the sharp-witted designer, Emily Rebholz), so she expects Spike to dress as Prince Charming and her siblings to impersonate a couple of the dwarfs. Compliant Vanya goes along; he always goes along, to avoid arguments. But Sonia drives out to a local second-hand store, buys a fancy evening dress, and claims that she’s dressed as Snow White’s evil queen pretending to be Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars. (Nielsen’s Maggie Smith imitation, which mixes bits from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite, Smith’s two Oscar-winning performances, is a highlight of the evening.) When no one at the party can figure out who the hell Masha is supposed to be while they compliment Sonia – a rare instance of Sonia stealing her sister’s thunder – Masha is beside herself. She’s also displeased when Spike picks up an aspiring young actress visiting at a nearby farm who’s named, appropriately enough, Nina (Genevieve Angelson) – though the person Nina is thrilled to be hanging out with is Masha, the star of the Sexy Killer movies (she plays a nymphomaniac serial killer) and not Spike, whose claim to fame is having made runner-up for a lead in Entourage 2. Masha treats her with a combination of noblesse oblige and condescension, just as Arkadina treats Nina in The Sea Gull.

Billy Magnusson, Sigourney Weaver & David Hyde Pierce
Durang salts in bits from Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, too, as well as various other allusions – he’s included a good Miracle Worker joke, a relatively obscure quotation from Long Day’s Journey, and, courtesy of Cassandra, dialogue from The Oresteia (which, we’re told, the siblings’ parents acted in, though it was considerably less of a triumph than they made of the fifties romantic comedy The Reluctant Debutante). The randomness of the non-Chekhovian allusions is part of what cracks you up about them; Durang’s parodies are such fruitcake pastiches that you don’t wonder what Cassandra is doing in the middle of a faux Chekhov play. Anyway you’re generally having too good a time to worry. Cassandra is continually falling into trances in the middle of dusting the furniture or removing the food trays and uttering dire predictions, though in act two she unaccountably starts thrusting pins into a voodoo doll fashioned after Masha in her Snow White outfit. (There is a plot reason.) Grant, whom I don’t recall seeing before, is a loony bird with a compelling stage presence who manages to hold her own on a stage with Weaver – giving her best comic performance in a couple of decades – Nielsen and Hyde Pierce.

Christopher Durang
Nielsen is an actress with her own eccentric comic rhythms who has appeared in several Durang pieces; since her show-stopping monologue in Betty’s Summer Vacation, he tends to write roles for her. When I see her in other people’s plays (like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of She Stoops to Conquer two seasons ago) she often seems to be recycling her Durang performances, but in his plays she always seems fresh. He knows how to turn on her juices. Hyde Pierce has the Durang role, the patient, slightly befuddled, occasionally eye-rolling peacemaker whose perspective on the lunacy swirling around him is the only trustworthy one. Here he gets to make ominous jokes about climate change (recalling Astrov’s complaints about the forest in Uncle Vanya) and write a symbolist play after the fashion of Treplev’s in The Sea Gull, in which Nina plays a post-apocalyptic molecule and Spike, embodying the unsympathetic responses of almost all of Treplev’s audience, cries out in something like despair, “I don’t understand this play!” (The first reference to The Sea Gull’s play within a play, where Vanya confesses that he’s never managed to figure out whether we’re supposed to think it’s wildly experimental and ahead of its time or just plain rotten, is my favorite line in Vanya and Sonia. My guess is that anyone who’s directed The Sea Gull, or maybe even just taught it, is likely to feel the same way.)

As an actor Angelson doesn’t make much of an impression, but she’s very sweet. The only performance that didn’t work at all for me was Magnussen’s, and I wish Martin had cut that low-comic bit where Spike does calisthenics downstage with his ass inches away from some female audience member in the front row. It feels like an interpolation; it’s at odds with the style of the production, which is elegantly loopy. Hyde Pierce’s big monologue in act two expressing his exasperation with contemporary culture and his longing for the pop culture of his childhood – Durang’s version of the title character’s third-act outburst at the professor in Uncle Vanya – also feels like an interpolation, but in a good way, like a funny oddball turn in a variety show. (It goes along with Cassandra’s Aeschylean doom-and-glooming.) Masha, by the way, is in the role of the absentee professor in Uncle Vanya who comes up with the idea of selling the house; she’s also Anya in The Cherry Orchard, the privileged one with the peasant-like adopted sister. The way Durang’s characters cycle in and out of the repertory of Chekhov roles keeps us Chekhov fans grinning and on our toes. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is written for a specifically educated audience – I imagine it gets pretty much the right one among Lincoln Center subscribers – and its elitism is highly entertaining.

Katie Holmes in Dead Accounts

I had a great time at Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar last season, but her latest, Dead Accounts, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all. The lively Norbert Leo Butz plays Jack, who leaves New York to visit his family in Cincinatti – an ailing (unseen) father, a churchgoing mother (Jayne Houdyshell, who’s the best thing in the show), a sister (Katie Holmes, whose performance consists of screaming and making unattractive faces) – after he’s embezzled millions of dollars from the bank accounts of dead people. Judy Greer is the wife he’s abandoned, who follows him to Ohio. I saw the play while it was still in previews, so there’s a possibility it might improve. Not much, though, unless Rebeck overhauls her script and comes up with a theme or two.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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