By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Brush up your Chekhov -- Christopher Durang’s newest comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is premiering at McCarter Theater Center in Princeton and on its way to New York's Lincoln Center. It stars Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in roles perfect for them, along with a group of less-famous-but-just-as-fine actors under Nicholas Martin’s light-as-a-feather direction.
Durang has written some hilarious parodies (my favorite is Desire Desire Desire, a sendup of Streetcar) but this is more a Chekhov mashup than a parody. Three siblings (almost three sisters since the one brother is gay) were named by their professor parents for Chekhov characters; the plot borrows not only from Three Sisters but also from The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull (although the bird of choice here is a wild turkey.)
Like Chekhov's plays, Durang’s is about real estate (selling the house) and melancholy (wasted opportunities) and pining for the past (it was nicer then). In one hilarious cartoon scene, Masha (Sigourney Weaver is a very courageous good sport) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, whose Maggie Smith imitation is a hoot) howl their Chekhovian laments -- “My life is over” and “I have never lived” -- making their mouths into comical Os.
Masha, a sultry aging film star who has made lots of money from blockbusters (Alien, anyone?) arrives at the family’s Bucks County house with her boytoy Spike (Billy Magnussen is spectacularly sexy and vulgar) in tow. Her brother, Vanya (Pierce, master of monologues and deadpan comic timing), has written a new version of Konstantin’s play in The Seagull that stars a lovely young neighbor named, of course, Nina (Genevieve Angelson). The proceedings are overseen by a cleaning lady named Cassandra (Shalita Grant in an irresistible performance) who not only foretells calamities but prevents them.
Durang has written an audience-pleasing monologue for each character, although Pierce’s terrific rant against the crass present, triggered by Spike’s texting during his play reading, got a huge ovation — partly for the performance, and partly, I suspect, because theater audiences are in sympathy with his sentiments.
There's a slew of delectable lines scattered throughout the script: “SONIA: I dreamt I was 52 and I wasn’t married. VANYA: Were you dreaming in documentary form?” Or this: “If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have nothing to write about.” And neither, I imagine, would Durang, who manages to fling commentary on global warming, theater vs. film, national consciousness, and a bunch of other contemporary issues into this entertaining show.
McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, through Oct.14. The entire run is sold out; call 609-258-2787 for possible availability.