[ATTENDED: October 3, 2012] Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Berlind Theater is on the back side of the McCarter Theater on Princeton University’s campus. I’ve seen a number of shows at McCarter, but none at Berlind. Berlind proved to be an even smaller and more intimate venue than the gorgeous McCarter.
What better place to see Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in starring roles? Especially when I managed to get $20 seats that were in row K. That’s right, Row K, as in 11 rows from the stage. All for $20 and free parking…suck it, Broadway!
Sorry, that was very unclassy. Let me start again.
Christopher Durang wrote the play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as a kind of loving nod to Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. The booklet that came with the play is very funny in which Durang interviews himself and gets most of the details wrong (he keeps calling it a parody of Uncle Vanya, which he explicitly states it is not).
The play is set in Bucks County, PA (just a hop skip and a jump from Princeton). David Hyde Pierce played Vanya, an older man who lives with his sister Sonia. Sonia, who is played by Kristine Nielsen, was adopted as a little girl. Their parents loved Chekov and named them after the characters in Uncle Vanya. And when thy became infirm, Vanya and Sonia stayed in their childhood home to take care of their ailing parents. Now Vanya and Sonia are much older, unemployed and curmudgeonly. She and Vanya have a hostile, co-dependent relationship.
Their other sister Masha (Vanya’s real sister) became a famous actress and moved away early. She sends them money to live on but doesn’t see them that often. Masha is Sigourney Weaver. And she is heading to their house in just an hour. She brings with her a young man named Spike (played by Billy Magnussen. This role must be very hard to cast because Magnussen was the single buffest man I have ever seen. He spends much of the play in his jockey shorts. Wow was he cut!). Of course, the joke (one of many) is that Masha is waaaaaay older than Spike. But he’s an aspiring actor as well, so they both seem to get something from the relationship. And Masha’s been married five times anyhow, so what’ one more boytoy.
The humor unfolds in the way that Masha utterly ignores Sonia (Weaver is fantastic with a great sense of comic timing–she absolutely takes over her first scenes–hilarious physical comedian, Weaver–and as her ego deflates, her onstage presence similarly deflates–great stuff). The drama unfolds as we see just how resentful the two are of Masha’s success. The dramatic humor comes from the cleaning woman Cassandra (played by Shalita Grant). Cassandra is a whirlwind of presence in the scenes where she comes on stage and forecasts doom. (Her mannerisms and chanting were hilarious and her sheer physicality was awesome).
The final bit of drama comes from Nina (played by Genevieve Angelson). Nina lives on the other side of the lake from Vanya and Sonia (well, her parents live there and she is visiting . Nina is a sweet and pretty young girl who is thrilled to meet Masha and strives to be an actress herself. Masha is jealous of her youth as an actress and as a lover (Spike is polymorphously perverse so it appears he would sleep with anyone).
The plot concerns a party at Sylvia Plath’s old house where Masha is supposed to show off as Snow White (and her siblings are dwarves). Things go awry in multiple ways and although we do not get to see the party, we see all of the aftermath).
Each player gets an excellent solo–David Hyde Pierce’s ability to delivery the lengthy tongue twisting monologue about how things used to be was incredible. I don’t know how long he went on for (4 or 5 minutes?) but it was a thorough, detailed criticism that was poignant, hilarious and spot on. Kristine Nielsen pretty much stole the show with her over the top hilarious rendition of Sonia. She plays her angry self, her self-pitying self, she even plays Dame Judi Dench, but she really blew me away during her solitary phone call when her emotions worked double time. And Shalita Grant had a great monologue in which she spouted off a huge amount of fast witty banter. She was great.
As I mentioned, Sigourney Weaver was outstanding. I never knew she had such a sense of comic timing. Her height certainly helps, especially when she comes out on stage in heels. She really knows how to use her body and her voice. SHe really impressed me. Billy Magnussen’s role is smaller, but he has a nice scene all to himself– his reverse striptease and his very funny “Entourage 2” audition showed he was not just a piece of sexy meat on the stage. Genevieve Angelson had a few moments to shine on stage when she performed Vanya’s own play within the play. (Angelson is largely unknown and she really held her own with this big name cast). It was wonderful to see all of the actors interact so well but also have a few solo moments to really show off.
The play is very funny (especially for such a small play). The jokes range from Chekov (jokes about the cherry orchard in the yard) to throwing mugs, from voodoo to Hollywood bashing, from a visit to the Wawa, to the beauty of Bucks County. And a fair amount of cursing. Durang’s dialogue was fast and quippy, and received many a laugh. I didn’t know Durang before, but apparently Weaver has done a lot of work with him in the past. And the set was beautiful. A very detailed and lovingly created house that looked totally permanent.
We went primarily because of Weaver and Hyde Pierce (and we regretted not doing the dinner or the round table before or after the show–doh!). And they were wonderful. But I was delighted with how much I enjoyed the other actors and the play as a whole.
I wondered what these stars were doing acting in an inexpensive play in Princeton. My friend Rob said this must be a preview run before it goes to Broadway Sure enough, is playing at Lincoln Center in a few weeks–we are so on the cutting edge! But as I said before, we paid $20, had free parking right in front of the theater. Popped in for a snack at the Wawa after the show (product placement!) and still made it home by 11. Suck it Broadway!
But yes, if you have a chance to see it on Broadway, do.