Aging gracefully has taken on a new meaning, thanks to the hilarious and touching production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s latest play currently in performances at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Directed by Nicholas Martin and featuring a cast of Durang veterans, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike touches on the comedy lurking behind the tragedy in the works of none other than Anton Chekov.
Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) are brother and sister, living in the house they grew up in and realizing much to their chagrin that much of their lives have passed them by. After caring for their dying parents, they now find themselves shut-ins, with no jobs or friends, and bickering constantly with each other. Their other sister, Masha (Sigourney Weaver), managed to leave home and establish a successful film career. (She also pays all of their bills.) But she has suddenly returned to her childhood home, with her much younger lover Spike, whose real name is Vlad (Billy Magnussen), to announce her intention to sell the family home.
Years of resentment and insecurities come to a head at this reunion, resulting in much drama as well as some shouting and wailing in despair. It doesn’t help that Vanya and Sonia’s housekeeper Cassandra (a very funny Shalita Grant) keeps making prophecies about the family’s lives, and that the dewy young nymph of a neighbor Nina (the lovely Genevieve Angelson) triggers frantic insecurities in Masha, who fears Spike will leave her for a younger woman.
While Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike does contain darker undertones of fear about aging, time passing by and family wounds, it also features some much needed and well executed comedic relief, especially when three siblings, Vlad and Nina attend a costume party together. Masha, decked out as Disney’s Snow White, is determined to be accompanied by several dwarves, a request that Vanya gamely acquiescex to. (It is worth noting that Pierce does an excellent impression of a dwarf.)
Pierce, Weaver and Nielsen are all veterans of Durang’s work and their ease with the material is apparent. As the narcissistic Masha, Weaver is excellent, depicting the carefully cultivated breezy exterior of the actress while offering insight into her deeply insecure fears about her age and appearance. Pierce is perfectly cast as the beaten-down, nebbish Vanya and his second-act monologue, ranting about modern culture compared to what he thinks of as the good old days, is compelling to witness. Nielsen gives a heartfelt sincerity as Sonia, a woman suffering from low self-esteem and a sense of entrapment in her life. When she receives a phone call from a potential suitor, her surprise and delight at the idea of a man being interested in her is touching and moving to witness.
Magnussen clearly has a fine time in the role of Spike, an aspiring actor with a compulsion to remove his clothing at inopportune times. With excellent comedic timing, he brings as much as he can to the role of a dumb, blonde and muscular man who is well aware of his good looks. Pierce, playing the latent homosexual Vanya, is especially moving in his responses to Spike. Angelson is also excellent as Nina, the adoring fan of Masha who longs to be an actress herself. Her sober reflection on the idea of art and acting is both endearing and amusing.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike does reflect on the perils of aging and how quickly time can pass by; several times throughout the play Masha wails, “My life has passed me by!” and Sonia cries in devastation, “I’ve never lived!” But thankfully the ends on a hopeful note, hinting at the idea of people bringing change into their lives, even when they have entered their later years. But with this motivation for change, the characters also find a sense of peace.While the idea of letting the afternoon pass by while sitting in a backyard, looking at a pond may sound tiresome or dull to some, this trio of siblings made it look calming and – dare I say it? – even fun.