They Should Have Left Vanya and Sonia and Masha to Chekhov

Parody has roughly the same staying power as the latest YouTube video or a song written by a thirty-year-old about life in middle school.  Highbrow parody, I suppose, can last longer—indeed, Kevin Brewer’s Island; or, to Be Or Not to Be, a recent, wonderful sendup of Shakespearean comedy, could easily sustain decades of revivals.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s manic, highly praised, and rapid-fire comedy, is an entirely different matter.  “If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about,” Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) jokes in the opening scene, and this line is about as sophisticated and deep as Mr. Durang will get for the next two and a half hours.  Granted, he occasionally pokes fun at the Russian playwright’s tendency towards expository dialogue, but otherwise you don’t really need to know Chekhov to laugh at the show.  You just need to be familiar with a handful of his titles and the misconception that his works are all mopey and unfunny.  It plays like a Chekhov-themed sitcom or an elitist version of those godawful movies that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer annually evacuate from the bowels of Hollywood, except with the added offense of having pretensions of cultural superiority.  Call it Not Another Chekhov Spoof.

The plot, though not particularly important, is a modern-day mash of Chekhovian tropes.  Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia are the children of two dead professors who spend their days in a house owned but not occupied by their movie star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver).  Out of nowhere, Masha appears with her new boy toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen), to attend a local costume party and inform her siblings that she is selling the property.  An ingénue and aspiring actress, Nina (Genevieve Angelson), shows up to pick at Masha’s vanity and jealousy, while a soothsaying maid, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), uses voodoo magic to produce something of a deus ex machina.

I cannot recall ever seeing such a talented cast waste themselves on such a worthless script.  Mr. Pierce is mostly kept on the sidelines, offering an occasional gay joke but rarely given the opportunity to explore Vanya’s deadpan sense of humor, while Ms. Weaver tends to overextend herself, hideously shrieking and pathetically prancing around like the cartoon version of Norma Desmond that Mr. Durang has written for her; though, in perhaps the play’s greatest moment, she does hysterically boast that Spike got an audition for the sequel to “Entouràge.”  And Ms. Grant, who was a delight in the Pearl’s Philanderer, has possibly the play’s most difficult task, charming her way through an awkward, vaguely racist role.  (Do we really need another gyrating, magical Black character whose only narrative purpose is to save white characters?)

It is only fair to mention that on the night I attended the audience was positively roaring and constantly interrupting the actors with applause.  The phrase, I suppose, is crowd-pleaser.  The crowd was pleased.  I was not.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through August 25th at the Golden Theatre.  252 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 30 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

5 thoughts on “They Should Have Left Vanya and Sonia and Masha to Chekhov

  1. Why is it– when you don’t like something, you need to be mean? You admit you didn’t laugh, the audience did. Ok, leave it at that. . its Not your thing. You come off as a bitter production assistant wanting attention for being ” oh, so outside the mainstream”. Yes, you must be kewl. I guess if you went to Oberlin and this is only as far as you are… Writing your own blog for free tickets to plays… That might explain your sad Humorless personality. I don’t expect anyone who teaches Jim jarmusch ( you must be from Ohio) to like Durang comedy.

    1. Very brave of you, Jim J, to make anonymous ad hominem attacks, and it is flattering that you went out of your way to find out so much personal information about me. Except I’m not from Ohio. And for the record, I do like Durang’s THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE.

      1. Dude. Been reading you for a while. Just trying to encourage you to take your talent to a higher level of critique. To call the script worthless and assume the talented cast is wasting themselves is irresponsible and lazy writing. Is it worthless if the piece was a “crowd pleaser”? Who says plays need to stand the ” test of time”. Plays are of the time. People are sad and worn out and need to laugh. They did. I saw the play at Lincoln center… So I didn’t see what you saw. Look. You’re young. You have an opportunity to be thoughtful and interesting and dynamic in a clever way. Not cheap and bitchy, I’ll continue to read your reviews and see you evolve. I teach theatre in a small college. So many of our generation (yeah, im close to you age, i think) have become so dismissive. So “love it, hate it”. So in between. I’m not anonymous. My name is Jim, and I care about artists and their feelings. And believe one can teach and criticize without killing the soul of the artist.

  2. JIm, I agree, the review is cheap and lazy., with (in author’s own words) “pretensions of cultural superiority”. I grew up in Russia, know Chekhov’s works very well, and see nothing wrong with this play – it’s smart and funny.
    Aaron, did you by any chance fall asleep and did not notice Vanya’s explosive monologue in the second act? How could any breathing person agree that ” Mr. Pierce is mostly kept on the sidelines, offering an occasional gay joke”? Sad…

    1. No, Igor, I didn’t fall asleep. And even if I did, I still believe I would have been a breathing person. Vanya’s monologue in the second act (an undistinguished variation on the trite, “When I was your age…”) was, as I recall, the exception to Mr. Pierce’s otherwise sidelined role. As I wrote in the review, I am well aware that most people loved this play. I’m glad you found it smart and funny.

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