Christopher Durang’s latest play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spide, begins quietly enough. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and his adoptive sister, Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), are sharing a cup of coffee — if sharing is the right word, given the wry, dissatisfied tone of their exchange — in the quaint “Morning Room” of a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It’s a quiet moment laced with a bitterness that builds incrementally, ending with both cups smashed against a wall. You see, both Vanya nor Sonia have drawn the short straws in life, leaving the long one for their sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), a movie star famous for her role in a franchise of horror flicks entitled Sexy Killer.
The play’s catalyst comes when Masha arrives on short notice with her latest boy toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen), in tow. Ostensibly, she’s there to attend a costume party thrown by a neighbor, but her not-so-secret motive is to sell the house, which has been costing her more than she’d like it to given her dwindling income now that her star has begun to fade. Vanya and Sonia, who took care of their parents as they suffered through illness and died, resent their sister’s flippant dismissal of their comparably small-time lives. Masha, utterly oblivious, has brought along a Disney-inspired Snow White costume for the party, to which she’s gotten them all invites, but also suggests (get this!) that her siblings wear dwarf costumes to complement her princess get-up.
It’s the disconnect between the house’s residents and visitor Masha that sparks the plot of Durang’s hysterically funny play, and it’s the shifting dynamics of that relationship that the plot ultimately hinges on. Riffing on the tone and trappings of Chekhov’s plays works well for Durang (the siblings were named after his characters), but a knowledge of Russian drama isn’t required to enjoy this production. To my mind, Vanya et al. is the most consistently funny evening on Broadway since God of Carnage, thanks in no small measure to the performances of its leading trio of actors.
Kristine Nielsen, no stranger to Durang’s work, is the standout here as put-upon outsider Sonia. When asked to put on a drawf costume, she defies her sister and heads to the costume shop, returning in a floor-length blue sequin gown. “I’m the Evil Queen from Snow White, as played by Maggie Smith on the way to the Oscars,” she declares. Her Maggie Smith impression is spot-on and even gains her an admirer at the party who calls her the next day — an occurrence that sets up one of the play’s most unexpectedly poignant moments.
As Vanya, a budding playwright, David Hyde Pierce makes use of all his familiar droll charms, mostly playing “straight man” to his female costars (ironic since the character’s gay) until he’s allowed to let rip in the second act and rail against what he sees to be a tech-obsessed, rudderless generation, bereft of the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody and Spam.
The trio is rounded out by Sigourney Weaver as Masha, whose performance, though the shakiest of the three, is firmly rooted in her character’s vanity. Her comic chops are most at work once Spike begins eyeing a young neighbor girl, Nina (Genevieve Angelson, charming), an innocent young inspiring actress who, through her flattery of Masha, wins herself an invite to the costume party. The acting here is generally skillful but it’s intentionally broad, and Weaver takes perhaps the most flagrant advantage of this looseness, hamming it up with aplomb.
Shalita Grant as the housekeeper, Cassandra (aptly named), is also worth special mention. Grant turns in a hilarious performance as a domestic prophet who mixes Greek diction with contemporary idiom, delivering the pronouncement early in the evening to “Beware of Hootie Pie” (I won’t spoil the reveal).
Thanks to Nicolas Martin’s sturdy direction, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which clocks in at around two and a half hours, breezes by in the blink of an eye, delivering consistent laughs but also moments of unexpected bursts of sadness and brilliance.