By Susan Wallner
Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce are stars that need little introduction (Alien, Frasier), and Kristine Nielsen is a favorite of Broadway and a familiar presence on TV series such as Political Animals, Smash, and Law & Order. These actors are in Princeton now, on stage with a new comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The playwright, Christopher Durang, knows them all well. He went to the Yale School of Drama with Weaver, cast Hyde Pierce in the actor’s first Broadway production (Beyond Therapy), and worked with Nielsen as a fellow actor in a benighted production of UBU at Lincoln Center. The failure of that production caused Nielsen and Durang to bond, and years later he wrote Miss Witherspoon for her, a comedy that premiered at the McCarter and was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.
Christopher Durang has a way with actors, perhaps because he’s been one himself. Growing up in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, he wrote and acted in his own plays, and during graduate school, he was a regular at the Yale Cabaret. He says that “being in plays, including plays I didn’t write, helped me figure out what actors needed, and it influenced me with my writing.” He’s even been cast in films such as The Secret of My Success and House Sitter. However, Durang made his name as a playwright, with Obie Awards (Sister Mary Ignatius, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and Betty’s Summer Vacation), Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants, and, just last month, the 2012 PEN Master American Dramatist Award.
With Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang says that he has taken themes and characters from one of his favorite playwrights, the Russian Anton Chekhov, and thrown them in a blender. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) are siblings named by their college professor parents for Chekhov characters. Vanya and Sonia stayed home to take care of their ailing parents in the country while their glamorous sister Masha traveled the world as an actress, got married (five times), and generally had a life. Now their parents are gone, and Vanya and Sonia are wondering what’s next. A surprise visit from Masha and her new “boy-toy,” the 20-something Spike (Billy Magnussen), a costume party, and a prophetic cleaning woman all combine to create chaos, comedy, and perhaps a changed perspective for all involved.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is wacky, funny and absurd, but it’s not lightweight. David Hyde Pierce says the similarity to Chekhov goes beyond the characters’ names and situations. “I would describe this play as epic,” the actor says, “in the exact same way that there’s a famous description of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, in which someone said that nothing happens – except one world ends and another one begins. That’s a little freighted, that’s a little heavy for this comedy, except that there are big themes in this show, and important things talked about, not in a precious way, but in a very funny, but powerful way.”
The opening night of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang is Friday, September 14 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where it runs through October 14. For tickets, visit www.mccarter.org. The production then moves to Lincoln Center in New York City where it will play through January 13, 2013.
A story featuring playwright Christopher Durang at home in Bucks County and performance footage from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will air on the premiere fall episode of State of the Arts on NJTV, Sunday, September 30 at 8 PM.