Hyde Pierce, Weaver channel their inner Chekhov

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — "If everyone took antidepressants," a character says early in Christopher Durang's new play, "Chekhov would have had nothing to write about."

True enough. And though Durang is writing more than 100 years after Chekhov did, one can still be thankful that there don't seem to be too many antidepressants immediately available to the characters in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which opened Monday at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, starring David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver. It would spoil much of the fun.

It would especially spoil the fun of seeing Pierce virtually steal the entire evening when he erupts in a fit of melancholy rage (if those two words can even coexist) toward the end of the play — an impassioned tantrum over the passage of time and the inexorable tide of change, but tinged with knowledge that the simple joys of the past were a bit silly, too, and could never have lasted.

Just listen to Pierce's Vanya describe the pleasure and pain, all at once, of having to lick postage stamps. It was unpleasant, sure, especially if you had a lot to send, but heck, you got it done, he rails — and in retrospect, it almost seems noble.

And how about those rotary phones? If the number had a lot of 9s in it, it could take hours just to dial, he seethes; "We had to have PATIENCE then." Pierce delivers these thoughts with such a potent mix of confusion, sadness and great comic timing that you don't know whether to cry for your old telephone or give him a standing ovation, mid-scene, when he's done.

Up until that point, though, Vanya seems the most stable character in the play. He is 50ish, gay and single. He lives with his adopted sister, Sonia, also 50ish and very, very single, in the house where they both cared for their parents until they died.

It's their parents they have to thank for the Chekhovian names; they did community theater and were clearly quite taken with the playwright — as is Durang, of course. Now, the siblings spend their days sipping coffee, arguing about the taste of that coffee, and staring out at the pond, awaiting the appearance of a blue heron. Sometimes, for a change, they tussle over whether the cluster of cherry trees on the property constitutes an orchard. (Yes, a "Cherry Orchard.")

If Vanya seems to exist in a state of consistent but manageable malaise, Sonia has a tougher time of it. "We are in our twilight years, and we realize we have never really lived," she moans. Having never had a man, she even imagines that she pines for her gay, adopted brother.

Enter sister Masha — the film star, the one who HAS lived. As played by Weaver — a Durang veteran — with an emphasis on high energy and high camp, Masha is glamorous, sexy and very busy, always jetting from one hotspot to another.

"Oh, I wish I had time to sit still," she tells her siblings, unconvincingly, when she arrives for a visit along with her much younger boy-toy, Spike (his original name is Vlad, of course), an aspiring actor who just missed out on getting cast in "Entourage 2."

And then there's the crazy housekeeper, Cassandra (an appealing Shalita Grant), who launches into hysterical Greek oracle-style warnings and predictions that have a way of coming true. "Beware of mushrooms that grow in the meadow!" she may say, out of the blue. "Beware of chicken with salmonella."

The action focuses on a costume party that Masha's been invited to, to which she's bringing the gang. We never get to see the party — but the fun is in the buildup and the aftermath, and in Durang's often cracklingly funny dialogue along the way.

As Sonia, Kristine Nielsen gives a terrific performance that shows a huge comfort level with the material (she is also a Durang regular.) And she does a fabulous Maggie Smith. Why Maggie Smith, you might ask? Well, she's decided her costume will be the Evil Queen in "Snow White," but she'll talk like Maggie Smith, and specifically Maggie Smith in "California Suite," where she played an Oscar-nominated actress on her way to the awards. (It's worth the ticket price merely to hear Nielsen, as Sonia, as Smith — bear with us — explain how Smith actually won an Oscar for playing an Oscar-nominated actress who didn't win.)

But the play's best moment goes to Pierce's Vanya, and his existential rant about time and change. It's worth noting that the entire tantrum is sparked by a text message at the wrong moment; Spike, Masha's boy-toy, thinks he can "multitask" while listening to Vanya present a reading of a play he's written.

So, if you're heading to the Newhouse theater, as the oracle-housekeeper Cassandra might say: "Beware, texters, of angry actors!" Best to keep that cellphone in your pocket.

___

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