11/12/2012 09:32 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

First Nighter: Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike , and What Else Is New?

There's a huge difference between sketch-writing and playwriting, but Christopher Durang often seems to have trouble remembering what it is. He gave some evidence of understanding with Beyond Therapy, which firmly established him on the theater map in 1981. He got closer to the challenge as of 1999's Betty's Summer Vacation.

And now with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse -- where he has important and commendably loyal decision-making admirers -- he seems to be trying to keep the sketch/play divide in mind.

Although he doesn't entirely succeed. Okay, he does if you're willing to accept his contrivance of an unconvincing sentimental ending to the series of Chekhov take-offs in which he indulges himself. Yup, seriously running the risk of giving away most of the joke with the "...and Spike" in his title, he returns to the entertainment field he's mined so often for his skit-focused humor. As early as his mock cabaret acts, Das Lusitania Songspiel and Chris Durang and Dawne, he's mined the burgeoning show-biz lode.

For Vanya and Sonia and Masha..." he introduces withdrawn Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and obsessively self-deprecating Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) bickering about lives lived with the Russian names their Chekhov-loving academic parents hung on them. Once they've wrung laughs -- many genuine -- from their breakfast chatter on David Korins's lovely version of a Bucks County, Pennsylvania stone farmhouse, Durang sends in successful actress (and madly actress-y) sibling Masha (Sigourney Weaver).

Masha, whose apparently impressive stage and film career is in decline, has brought along the fellow titular and extraordinarily buff Spike (Billy Magnussen), several decades her junior and a Roman candle of self-love. Ostensibly, she's arrived to see brother Vanya and adopted sister Sonia, but her real purpose is two-fold: 1) She's in the process of selling the family home; and 2) She's ever-so-enthusiastic about attending a costume ball being thrown by neighbors down the road. For it she's dressing as Snow White and intends bro Vanya and sis Sonia to masquerade as two of the seven dwarfs.

To bolster the allusions to incidents from Uncle Vanya, The Three Sistersand The Cherry Orchard, Durang appropriates aspiring actress and Masha Hardwick fan Nina (the truly Nina-esque Genevieve Angelson). For good measure but maybe not much more, he hauls in cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant and her own whirlwind) from Greek mythology to predict what dire events will befall the others in the face of their determined disbelief.

Most of Durang's proceedings (directed by Durang partisan Nicholas Martin) swirl around preparations for the party -- most of them backfiring on the manipulative Masha. When that aspect isn't broiling, there's attention paid Masha's rocky affair with Spike -- which also causes her agita whenever Nina's around.

Actually, the aftermath of the party sets the second act in motion -- at the same time as it may remind well-versed theater-goers of the misfired central event in Jean Anouilh's Thieves' Carnival. Not to mention that when Sonia repeatedly declares "I'm a wild turkey," she evokes thoughts not of Anton Chekhov and his Cherry Orchard "I'm a seagull" but of Henrik Ibsen and his tragedy, The Wild Duck.

Along the way, there are funny bits, to be sure, but too often they come as interruptions in protracted character spoofs that register as the sort of juvenalia Durang might have graduated from since penning the hilarious opening monologue in 1979's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. The better part of the yuks are elicited by Nielsen, an innately amusing character player. It's true that at times in previous turns, she's relied on her hefty bag of tricks, but that's not the case here.

At one point, Sonia's having dressed for the party as Maggie Smith on her way to win her second Oscar (for California Suite, Nielsen wins applause by unfurling a bang-on Maggie Smith impersonation. At another juncture, Durang gets everyone else off stage so Sonia can have a heart-felt telephone conversation with a widower she impressed at the party.

The interlude is the one thoroughly human sequence in the work -- in large part because Nielsen executes it so touchingly. You can be sure that in future, character actresses auditioning for similar roles will show up with this speech. By the way, has anyone noticed how similar Nielsen's performing is to the almost-forgotten but ever-adorable Marion Lorne?

Weaver, another faithful Durang pal, does well enough as Masha -- and sports a swingy hair-cut that has to have women in the audience covetous. She's hampered, however, by Durang's hardly fresh portrait of a self-obsessed five-times-married-and-divorced star attempting to hold on to her youth by holding on to a youth. If there's a new way to render a vain woman, Weaver doesn't locate it.

Hyde Pierce rallies behind his regressive role, nicely confident that his playing will have viewers responding happily to him as they always do. Durang eventually hands this Vanya a chunk of material into which accommodating Hyde Pierce surges head-long. It's an 11 o'clock aria about how much better the past is when compared to the present -- a time when Spike thinks almost landing a role on Entourage 2 is a coup.
During the lengthy, showy tirade, Durang seizes the opportunity to recall theater back then as "a part of the national consciousness, which it isn't anymore." Good for him in making that point, but less helpful is his having Vanya rant about past popular entertainment. "It was sometimes corny," he says, "but it was sincere." With the outcry, the unraveling Chekhovian lad seems to be arguing against the very play he's in. And if he's not sold on it, why should we be?