THE BLOG
11/26/2012 06:04 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Stage Door: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Scandalous

If the themes are regret and longing, we're in Chekhov territory. And Christopher Durang has masterfully channeled some of the Russian playwright's most memorable characters and plays -- The Seagull, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya in his funny, rueful and wonderfully sharp comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

Starring David Hyde Pierce as gentle Vanya, Sigourney Weaver as the self-obsessed actress Masha and Kristine Nielsen as depressed stepsister Sonia, the three siblings battle futility and age, musing on the roads not taken.

While Vanya and Sonia have been caring for their dying, dementia-addled academic parents (which explains their names) Masha has been jet-setting around the world, making millions from violent films. "I can't remember dates or decades, I just live!" she exclaims in her hyper-narcissistic way.

When she deigns to visit with boy toy Spike (Billy Magnussen) in tow, it's to attend a swanky costume party. She goes as Snow White, only to discover that the Disney reference dates her. Today, Durang reminds us, the past is as old as yesterday's tweets.

Durang, who has a penchant for literary associations, employs Chekhovian musings to meditate on time -- from the vantage of 50-something angst. He does so by crafting an acerbic send-up of literature and life, creating standout roles for Nielsen, who brilliantly morphs into Maggie Smith to upstage her vain sister, while Weaver gleefully chews the scenery as an aging star obsessed with a dopey boyfriend and hilariously indifferent to anyone else.

Throw in a young wannabe actress aptly named Nina (Genevieve Angelson) and a maid with the gift of prophesy (a spot-on Shalita Grant) and Vanya and Sonia makes for lively theater. Each actor gets their moment, and while Vanya's rant against modernity goes on too long, it hits its mark. Deftly directed by Nicholas Martin, who gets excellent performances from his cast, Durang's latest effort is smart, charming and knowing. Chekhov would love it.

Conversely, the only scandalous thing about Kathy Lee Gifford's Broadway musical Scandalous is its insipid book (written by Gifford) given the dramatic possibilities of its subject: Aimee Semple McPherson, the first female evangelical star who rocked the Pentecostal world in the 1920s and '30s.

Seeming more vaudeville than fire and brimstone, the attractive divorcee rose to become a media and religious sensation. Yet Scandalous, now at the Neil Simon Theater, is curiously devoid of drama; it's all exposition. This is unfortunate, because the musical has several pluses: a friendly, upbeat score and Carolee Carmello, a first-rate Broadway veteran with a sensational voice that brings down the house.

The hardscrabble McPherson "heard the call" and fearlessly answered -- preaching in tents, boxing rings and brothels. (Ironically, Jesus is never mentioned in the musical. Here, McPherson's religion is strictly feel-good spirituality.) Part preacher, part entertainer, she eventually located Hollywood as her true home, building the lavish 5,300-seat Angeles Temple. A perfect venue for her biblical pageants, often with sets designed by Charlie Chaplin, in which McPherson combined salvation with spectacle, welcoming all races and creeds.In the Scandalous incarnation, the "stagecraft" includes an Adonis-like temptation (Edward Watts) who clearly spends more time with barbells than bibles.

McPherson had a knack for self-promotion, always entering her church in a flowing white gown carrying a bouquet of red roses. She decried modernity, but embraced radio. She preached against worldliness, but the thrice-married evangelist lived large, socializing with William Randolph Hearst and Louella Parsons. And like many religious leaders, she became embroiled in scandal: Was she kidnapped in 1926, or was she shacking up with a married lover?

Kathy Lee Gifford's bland book fails to render this uniquely American proto-feminist story theatrically. The narrative should drive the inherent contradictions of McPherson's engaging tale. In short, we need a reason to stay for act two.

Scandalous has a strangely whitewashed feel, though the performances by her strict Salvation Army mother (a strong Candy Buckley), madam-turned aide (entertaining Roz Ryan) and George Hearn as a rival pastor, ring true. Carmello is wonderful at recreating the joyous elements that drew thousands of devotees. But the musical is little more than bio-pic lite -- and that's a sin.

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