The point is often made that early 20th Century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, while in the years since they have mostly been played as rueful, melancholy drama. In his new twist on Chekhovian ideas, Christopher Durang has rightly realized that it’s a matter of context – Chekhov’s plays could have probably been funny to early 20th Century Russians! (That Chekhov didn’t find Russian productions of his plays in his own time funny enough is a different and very complex issue).
In transposing Chekhovian characters to 21st Century Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang has made sense of how rueful melancholy can be hilarious. It might not make sense for us to laugh at landowners missing all the serfs they used to have, but we can easily “get” a fifty-something missing his three channels of black-and-white TV from the 1950s and 60s. It also helps that Durang doesn’t write in a realist style like Chekhov, but a style altogether more absurd and impishly laugh-seeking.
In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and his adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) have lived their entire, quietly desperate lives in their family’s country house. While they stayed home to take care of their ailing (and now dead) parents, their sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) has become a successful movie star. When Masha unexpectedly reappears with her twenty-something boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen), the siblings’ stagnant lives are thrown into disorienting – but also exciting – chaos.
I should pause here for just a moment to say “HELLOOO, SPIKE!!!” Magnussen (pictured above) is a stunningly fit young man, and Durang has Spike disrobe at any opportunity. While that is more reminiscent of Inge than Chekhov, it is certainly very welcome in these quarters. And while Spike is meant to be a bit of a dim bulb, Magnussen’s athletically precise slapstick and whip-crack comic timing are very smart indeed.
Weaver, a longtime collaborator with Durang, gives what is easily the show’s most over-the-top performance, which totally makes sense for the narcissistic self-dramatizing Masha. Neilsen, another Durang muse, is the most varied and textured in her portrayal of Sonia, a bipolar nut who truly blossoms by play’s end. And Pierce (who played a gay waiter in a Durang play at the very beginning of his career) gives the most Chekhovian performance as the gay Vanya, who quietly lusts after Spike’s bod but gives him a very big comeuppance by play’s end.
I liked this a lot – it hasn’t rushed to the top of my list of all-time favorite comedies, but it has instantly become my favorite Durang, and easily topped Chekhov himself; I always liked Chekhov contemporaries Ibsen and Strindberg a lot more, so it’s hardly surprising that I would like an affectionate, intelligent parody of Chekhov more than the original.
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