"This is a very important work. There is much more here than one imagines. It is a mirror for our times. If you don't see and feel the emotion under the laughter, you are not a thinking person. I was laughing and then crying… and then laughing again. 5 stars for sure. Go, go, go! That is, if you can even get a ticket."
--Janet S, New Nork (sic), NY
I lifted the above recommendation for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike from an online capsule review, after finally seeing Christopher Durang's highly praised comedy in Manhattan. Having tried unsuccessfully to get tickets when it played to sold-out houses at the McCarter Theater in Princeton earlier this fall, I was elated to secure a single ticket for myself at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater on Black Friday.
Since I was already in New York for Thanksgiving with my family, it was easy to walk a few blocks to West 65th Street. I had planned on returning to my Bucks County farmhouse— the very setting of Vanya— to take advantage of The Great Outdoors on the last unseasonably warm and sunny day forecast by Carol Erickson.
I mention the KYW weatherwoman by name because she is invoked in the play. Philadelphians will also recognize Durang's reference to Upper Black Eddy, a singularly named town north of New Hope.
Outsmarting the tourists
But I digress. I'd been calling the box office daily during the preceding week, only to be told that Vanya was sold out. No online tickets were available at any price.
A sophisticated theatergoing friend suggested I make the short trip to Lincoln Center on a day when many New Yorkers would be out of town and tourists would be unaware that a Friday matinee had been added to the schedule.
Why do I recount this rather tedious story of attaining a prized seat to the one play I was determined not to miss? Because I now regret my decision.
It's cold and windy in Bucks County today, and I'm sitting miserably in front of my laptop and imagining what a wonderful time I would have had walking my dog or riding my horse yesterday amid the sun-kissed foliage of an incomparable autumn day. Now that I'm entering late middle age— even the first decade of old age— how many such glorious golden days will I have left as the shadow of darkness hovers?
Regret, of course, is a theme indigenous to Chekhov, as is aging. The road not taken, the life not lived, the opportunity gone forever.
Perhaps my disappointment with Vanya and Sonia has to do with exaggerated expectations. Trusted friends begged me not to miss it, just as had the unknown Janet S. above.
Chekhov in a blender
Is Vanya and Sonia an important work, as Janet S. professes? Is it a "mirror for our times"? Is it factually true that, as she says, "If you don't see and feel the emotion under the laughter, you are not a thinking person"?
Durang is an award-winning playwright who lives in Bucks County, perhaps not far from me. In the Lincoln Center Theater Review that one can purchase in the lobby, he writes that Vanya and Sonia is not a parody.
It "takes Chekhov characters and puts them in a blender," he explains. The mix includes elements from Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull, and it's most entertaining to recognize them.
Nevertheless, I felt as if Vanya was indeed a parody— a very, very clever one. What I missed was the heartache, "the emotion under the laughter," as Janet S. put it.
Sigourney Weaver annoys
Kristine Nielsen as Sonia overshadowed the star-studded cast— namely Sigourney Weaver, Durang's friend since his student days at Yale, and David Hyde Pierce. Nielsen's performance seemed the most layered and heartfelt, and her impersonation of Maggie Smith is worth the price of admission. She practically steals the show in the first act as she fiercely smashes a couple of coffee cups.
When Weaver makes her grand entrance as Masha, she commands the stage— not in a good way. Her exaggerated impersonation of a great screen actress is annoying in the extreme. Her lines are delivered too shrilly, even raucously. In fact, raucous rather than rambunctious is the best way to describe Vanya and Sonia.
I found myself checking my watch during the tedious first act. The plot thickens in Act II, which I enjoyed much more. But again, the high point— Pierce's long monologue condemning modern life as embodied in the cell phone— struck me as over the top.
Searching for subtlety
Vanya and Sonia is such a clever little confection that more subtle performances would seem in order. And for those, there are the excellent Genevieve Angelson, as Nina, and Shalita Grant, as Cassandra. Billy Magnussen does an admirably annoying job as the love interest, Spike. But his energetic antics become irritating after a bit.
Most theatergoers and Durang aficionados will surely adore this play. But for me, the most valuable purchase was not the ticket, but the aforementioned Lincoln Center Theater Review, which contains a most thought-provoking and elegant essay on regret by Mark Doty.
"What is regret?" he asks. "Merely an inevitable mood, a momentary cloud darkening the emotional landscape?" The road not taken, he suggests, "looms large in the imagination simply because it wasn't taken."♦
To read another review by Caol Rocamora, click here.
To read a response, click here.