Christopher Durang’s new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike celebrated its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. Starring David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver, and Kristine Nielsen, this new play expertly oscillates from tickling humor to heartbreaking poignancy.
David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen gave especially moving performances as siblings Vanya and Sonia, living together in their family home after spending 15 years nursing their ailing parents through illness, and realizing that their lives passed them by relatively unlived. Both Nielsen and Pierce elicit laughter and tears from the audience with skill that shouldn’t be missed, and Durang’s development of Vanya and Sonia is particularly special.
Characters and themes from Chekov swirl together with copious and clever references to Ancient Greek Drama, stereotypes of celebrity, and warnings of global warming. Director Nicholas Martin has made some interesting, though sometimes puzzling choices as the tone teeters between fourth-wall realism, and self-aware meta-comedy as frequent and hilarious references to the ridiculousness of celebrity and actors play humorously on the celebrity actors onstage.
The conflict between mega-star Masha Hardwick (Sigourney Weaver) and the young aspiring actress Nina (Genevieve Angelson) also has significant weight as the concept of actors passing the torch to the next generation is illustrated not only by the characters, but by Angelson and Weaver themselves. (Angelson, who just graduated this past May from NYU’s Graduate Acting Program gives a clear and skilled performance as Nina, offering depth to a character that at first may seem two-dimensional. We will surely be seeing much more from Angelson as her career takes off.)
Designs by Emiy Reholz (Costumes) David Korins (Sets) and Justin Townsend (Lighting) are effective in transporting the audience to the bucolic country home in Bucks County, PA. Shalita Grant as the prophetic housekeeper Cassandra is a delight to behold, and Billy Magnussen who plays Masha’s young boyfriend sports impressive comedic timing and expert physicality. There are, as with most new plays, some slow spots where rewrites could be useful, but overall it is a charming piece that makes for a very pleasant evening at the theater.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays through October 14th at the MCarter Theater Center, and previews begin at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City on October 25th, running until January 13th.