“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 both 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 (Weaver, as funny as you’ve ever seen her), swans around the world becoming rich and famous and completely forgetful of them.
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Vanya and Sonia are the very models of mid-life 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 mid-life 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 the 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.