I never thought Anton Chekhov was even mildly amusing. To me, his writing epitomizes what the Gershwins meant in the lyrics to "But Not For Me" when they wrote "With love to lead the way, I've found more skies of gray, than any Russian play... could guarantee." I just didn't know about Christopher Durang.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, his new comedy that just transferred to the tiny little Golden Theatre on Broadway from a nice run at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center, is chock full of Chekhov characters in Bucks County, disguised as contemporary neurotics, who have all arrived at the endangered family estate located, I assume, near the rustic getaway Moss Hart made famous in George Washington Slept Here. Replete with exposed wooden beams open to the sky, old-fashioned hooked rugs and wicker, it's a gorgeous stone house that reeks of country chic. Uncle Vanya (stoic, grumpy David Hyde Pierce, who looks like a disagreeable baby with colic) waddles out in his night shirt to argue with his adopted sister Sonia (marvelous, cow-eyed Kristine Nielsen) about the quality of the coffee. Instead of the seagull, she wants to know if he's spotted any sign of the blue heron. (No seagulls in Bucks Country, I guess.) They've lived together in sour disarray ever since their parents succumbed to Alzheimer's and died. Now they are invaded by the arrival of their fabulously successful movie star sister Masha -- air kissing, superficial as Auntie Mame's foot-long cigarette holder, reaching out but never quite touching, and one hilarious composite of nervous tics and pretentious materialism. "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about," declares Sonia while she agonizes over what's left of the family cherry orchard. It's been their cross to bear that their eccentric parents named them all after Chekhov characters.
Masha's invasion pierces the redolent country air and ruptures the peace. Played with great panache by Sigourney Weaver, she makes a number of game attempts to justify her stardom in five sexy nymphomaniac serial killer movies that earned her millions. (I don't think Mr. Durang would take offense if you form uneasy parallels to Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movie franchise.) Anyway, Masha, like the famous actress Arkadina in The Seagull, has brought along a new boyfriend half her age -- the buff, brain-dead Mike (an uproarious Billy Magnussen) who struts around in as little as society will tolerate, to the delight of the repressed, decidedly gay Uncle Vanya, while lamenting the fact that he just lost the lead on HBO's Entourage 2. After Masha drops the bomb that she's putting the house up for sale to pay the mortage, cherry orchard or no cherry orchard, everyone goes a little ballistic, moping, weeping, whining and wondering who will feed the blue heron. There's a girl named Nina who is visiting rich landowners next door, an obnoxious African-American housekeeper who keeps sticking pins in a voodoo doll, causing endless yelps of pain, and a disastrous costume party in which everyone dresses like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs except Sonia who dons a crown and goes as "the Evil Queen as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars."
At this point, I advise you to give up trying to figure out how everyone fits into assorted productions of Chekhov and just sit back and allow Christopher Durang's Harvard-honed wit and fine sense of camp to creep over you like a parlor game, directed with economy and finesse by the brilliant Nicholas Martin. It doesn't matter how much you know about Chekhov. Just suffice it to say that everyone is suicidal with angst and despair, especially Masha, with five failed marriages and nobody to love. "Well, I'm unhappy too," wails Sonia whose life is empty and, like Agnes Gooch, she's never really lived. Not to mention Vanya, who is frustrated and gay and in his dotage -- "and you can't be all three and smile!" They're all depressed and an awful lot of fun, including the nipple-pinching, crotch-massaging Mike, who is sad that there isn't enough of him to go around. "Why does he take his clothes off so much?" asks Vanya. "Because he can," shoots Sonia. Everyone has a monologue that is nothing short of hilarious. (You'll find yourself using that word a lot.) David Hyde Pierce stops the show with a long, impassioned, exhausting, coma-inducing speech delivered non-stop with few pauses to catch his breath, about the joys of the good old days -- remembering Ozzie and Harriet, popcorn in the kitchen, dial phones, and licking stamps instead of Twitter, Facebook, emails and video games. The ovation following this outburst is well deserved, leaving the audience in tears of both laughter and philosophical agreement.
In the end, the cast is bloody but unbowed. They talk about going to Moscow, but they scarcely have the strength to get to Trenton, N.J. You'll be worn out, too -- but exhilarated. You've only spent a weekend with these people, but you might want to spend the rest of your life with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. I don't know what Chekov would make of all this, but the audience at the Golden is having a spree.