11/26/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike": Brush Up Your Chekhov

Toward the end of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang's slight new comedy now at Lincoln Center, David Hyde Pierce, playing the character Vanya, delivers a lengthy diatribe against tweets, texts, e-mails, and all things that are reducing human communication to voiceless shorthand and symbols. He pines for the days when we licked stamps, dialed telephones, and watched "Ozzie and Harriet" on TV for adventure.
It's the funniest thing in the show, but the humor is probably lost on anyone not old enough to remember such things, and thereby lies one of the problems with Vanya et al. But it's only one of several.

The conceit of Vanya is that it's a modern-day tale set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that parallels certain plot lines found in Chekhov's major works, except Durang has opted for a smorgasbord approach, taking a bit from this play and a bit from that, with the end result being a sort of Russian stew, long on cabbage and short on meat.
Four of the six characters in Durang's play, including the first three of the title, are named for characters in Chekhov, and a fifth, Cassandra, is taken from Greek myth. And Spike is, well, Spike.

In Durang's version, Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister living in the farmhouse where they grew up. The house, however, is owned by the third sibling, Masha, a movie and TV star who arrives suddenly with Spike, her boy toy, and a plan to sell the house and let her brother and sister fend for themselves. Then there is the maid, Cassandra, who has a habit of making dire predictions that no one pays any attention to, but is proficient in voodoo, and Nina, an aspiring young actress staying next door.

The treatment may sound like a formula for a zany comedy, but the one-liners never rise much above the level of a sitcom with literary pretensions. The allusions to Chekhov for the most part seem to be aimed at an audience who may know the titles of some of the plays but have never actually read them. The first mention of some cherry trees, for example, gets a big laugh. A reference to a blue heron (there aren't many seagulls in Bucks County), however, draws fewer.

There are some lines lifted straight from Chekhov's plays scattered here and there, but they are so out of context they are meaningless. For instance, an abrupt declaration by Sonia (there is no Irina in this play) that she has forgotten the Italian words for window and ceiling falls flat because there is nothing in this Sonia's character to indicate she would know any word of Italian.

The main characters complain a lot about the boredom of Bucks County, and moan that their life is over. Mercifully, no one longs to go to Philadelphia. All in all, Vanya is a contrived exercise that gets lost in its own attempts to be clever. If there is a point to the play, it is well hidden.

Under Nicholas Martin's direction, most of the cast simply camp it up onstage. David Hyde Pierce, a master at comic timing and deadpan, delivers the only straightforward performance as Vanya. As Masha, Sigourney Weaver seems to be having a lot of fun overplaying the self-centered movie star, while Kristine Nielson, as Sonia, enjoys wallowing in self-loathing. As for Spike, Billy Magnussen gets to show off his considerable work at the gym by stripping to his underwear at every opportunity.

Shalita Grant delivers a commendable turn as Cassandra, and Genevieve Angelson struggles to reconcile a Nina who is supposedly at once a big fan of Masha's B movies yet sensitive to serious drama.