PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; A Weekend in the Country
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Anton Chekhov always said his somber tracts were comedies, but even he would laugh at seeing how his Vanya, Sonia and Masha fare with their newfound friend, Spike, in the 21st century of Christopher Durang, bowing March 14 at the Golden.
Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike are not the Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice of Bucks County. Three of the four are the scrambled offspring of a couple of egghead college professors with a penchant for community-theatre Chekhov; the fourth, Spike, is literally along for the ride as the sexual accessory of Masha, a grand-dame movie star about to put her stay-at-home siblings out to pasture. Off in the distance, 11 or 12 cherry trees trying to be an orchard quiver at the idea of change.
Chekhovian names and places and themes are playfully kicked about the stage by Durang and his gang of six — seven, if you count director Nicholas Martin who steered this cast through a loopy obstacle course of broad, buoyant comedy.
At all three stops, from Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center to Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse to Broadway's Golden, the show has grown by leaps and bounds. Some have suggested that director Martin has done a little work on the cast during their last five-week rest, but it'd take flames-to-the-feet to get them all to play at this exuberant level.
All the actors exit at least once to exit applause, and each one of them gives full credit for this happy improvement to the house that they're now playing in. It literally pitches the laughs right into the laps of the audience.
A replica of the sun porch of Durang's actual Bucks County farmhouse, meticulously reconstructed by set designer David Korins, fills the stage of the Golden invitingly.
"Last night," said David Hyde Pierce, the show's Vanya and, for all practical purposes, the master of the manor, "I had friends who came and they said, 'It's incredible. The moment you walk into the theatre and you see the set in the space, you go 'Ah! I'm in the right place.' All reactions are bigger. The depth of the silences are bigger when people are caught up in the scene — the scale of the laughs, the length of entrance and exit applause, all that. We've had to learn to surf that.
"It's a lot of things — the size of the audience, the proscenium stage. We had a proscenium at Princeton. When we moved to the Newhouse, it was a thrust stage. We all liked that. It was really interesting and felt more three-dimensional — but, for comedy, it's nice to have that frame around you. It just focuses the energy of the play, and it connects the audience. Because of the focus of the proscenium, all the relationships and all the little connections and subtle looks between people that tell you what's going on — you can see those. When you look only from one direction, actors can shape what the audience sees; if the audience is on three sides, you can't."
Durang has drafted his two most favorite and frequently used muses into playing Pierce's contentious sisters — kooky Kristine Nielsen as Sonia, the carping, man-less homebody, and glamorous Sigourney Weaver as Masha, the narcissistic, much-married movie star who travels with a buffed-up, dim-bulb boy-toy named Spike (Billy Magnussen). In the service of Durang, Nielsen usually keeps her head in a vague bobble so that you can — if you listen — hear a slight rattle, while Weaver does Durang with an unassailable strength and intelligence and attractiveness.
How these two got on the same ditzy-sister wave-length is beyond me, but the suspicion is strong that Martin locked Weaver in a closet with Nielsen overnight and she came out with a distinct, matching rattle. In any event, any trace of the ball-busting sci-fi heroine she played in the "Alien" series is buried under wide-eyed silliness and a Shirley Temple vocal delivery. Weaver has reached her anti-"Ripley."
"What a great way to say it!" Weaver lit up at that compliment. "Ripley's so much harder to do than this kind of comedy. Only Durang gets me to do anything like this."
The actress and the playwright have been friends and comedy conspirators since his second week at Yale School of Drama, and there have been numerous roles — Masha among them — that Durang wrote with her specifically in mind. (Masha craves to be a serious actress but was sidelined by a hit flick series about a serial killer.)
At the curtain call, the star abandoned the stage and personally delivered her flowers to her longtime pal and playwright, who was four rows from the stage in a wheelchair, the result of a recent fall. Director Martin, also in a wheelchair, was seated farther back in the theatre, lest some wiseacre find them together and say, "Gentlemen, start your engines," or mistake them for The Men Who Came to Dinner.
"I'm proud of the ensemble and the kind of work we did," Martin admitted. "David and Kristine had that relationship from the first rehearsal — and Sigourney, her relationship with them. I've been extremely lucky — and I've been extremely careful — choosing this cast because I really do think this is Chris' best play.
"It was thrilling to sit in the house. It was like a rock concert. I'm proud of all of our designers. Every step of the way, we had the most wonderful producers — all along at each theatre: Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre, Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater and now Joey Parnes and Larry Hirschhorn."
Nielsen, arguably the epicenter of fun in the play, said she had lots of help from the cast. "I feel like we're all extraordinary actors," she said. "I thought we acted as a family very well. Oh, the proscenium for comedy — give it to me anytime. It makes you focus, and, as a group, we were able to do that more for each other. We were off for five weeks, which I think was healthy. Everybody could clear their mind and start up again. I thought Nicky had some very good simple adjustments. You get to re-rehearse, and usually you don't get to. It's like 'Omigod! We made it to Moscow!'
"I have learned so much from Sigourney. She's one of my favorite actresses to work with. I've had the privilege of working with her several times. I think she gets Chris like nobody gets Chris. I like to think I sneak in sometimes and get him, but I know their history. Her insanity — it's been so much fun, like sisters. She shares so much."
On stage, the sisters hit a major schism over the big society event of the play—a costume ball occurring in a neighboring farm. Masha decks herself up as Disney's Snow White and expects everyone else to fall in line as her dwarfs. Vanya obliges, replete with an above-and-beyond squat-walk, but Sonia will only agree to the Evil Queen — and then, only one played by Maggie Smith. It's a bit of business from real life that Durang saw fit to write into the play, and it must be said Nielsen does a mean Maggie Smith! "At lunch with Chris once, I just started doing it," she recalled. "I had lost some audition and said, 'Maybe if I had been Maggie Smith' — because she's so brilliant, and every time you use her voice, you're so much better and more interesting."
The hunky, young Magnussen has been around the Broadway block before — once before. "I was actually in The Ritz in the ensemble. I ran around in my underwear, just like this play! That's all I've done on Broadway is run around in my underwear."
It might come off dumb, but what he is really playing in his lend-lease lothario is innocence: "Spike loves the world, and he goes through just admiring it. He has no ill intentions toward anyone. He just loves life, and that's what I focused on with him."
Rounding out the cast, in their Broadway debuts, are Genevieve Angelson as a true innocent next door (named Nina, Masha is annoyed to note) and Shalita Grant as Cassandra, the African-American maid who dusts and does hit-and-miss prophesies.
Angelson has a good attitude about being the only sane person on the premises and joys in the exit applause in spite of that: "I do have a very straight part. It is chamber music. We all have our role to play. Some people play a trombone and make a lot of noise. I have a violin to play and I'm lightly playing on top. We all need to be there to make it work. We feel the love with every audience. It's like we're as happy to see them as they are to see us. It's nice to be in a show that's making people so happy."
Grant has been in the show since it was an one-act. A former student of Durang's at Juilliard, she got a call from him when he was writing it out at the McCarter. "He said, 'I'm doing a reading for these two one-acts, and they want to commission one. Can you come and read?' So I go out and do it. It was classic Durang, but the character wasn't quite there yet. He said, 'Yeah, I dunno. Why don't we play around with it and you can figure it out?' I have about an hour and a half before we do this in front of 150 people, so I got it into gear. I drew on family members who are really wild. That's what I brought to the fore, and he wrote the second act for me."
Durang's Vanya doesn't run around the house and shoot off guns, but he does explode in a turbulent, churning torrent of words — 1,477 by actual count. It's a rant that runs nine minutes in the playing, mostly uninterrupted save for a few asides from the characters and the applause and laughter of the audience.
Unlike Yul Brynner's last go-around in The King and I where he had a respiratory tank waiting for him backstage after "Shall We Dance?," Pierce does not have to lie down after his epic spiel. He takes precautions — like H20 before he takes off.
"I do find a place to drink water before I start into it because it's a long time to go without any water," the actor readily allowed. "I remember when Mark Rylance was doing La Bete, he had a much longer speech, but he had strategically placed water all over the set, disguised as glasses of wine and things like that. If you can't hydrate, it makes it very difficult to do that so I get a little sip before and I'm fine."
The Speech — as it will doubtlessly be referred to — is a crazy-quilt weaving the glories of yesterdays in with the miseries of today. Hayley Mills vs. Lindsay Lohan, for example — but even that is qualified by Pierce in his presentation. "Reminiscing about how great things are, Vanya constantly comes up against how stupid things used to be, too. So it's not a simple oh-the-past-is-better-and-the-present-is-dumb. The character is struggling through this gigantic speech to figure out, 'What is it I'm trying to say? What is the essence of what's going on?' Audiences — I get very young audiences — student audiences at Princeton — respond very positively to a speech which have a lot of references to the '50s and '60s that they would have no idea about, so it must be about something more than the specific references."
Was "Adventures" too strong a word for "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"? Was it fair of Disney to fire a fine young actor like Tommy Kirk just for being gay? Where have all the original Mouseketeers gone? Pierce has since found out where one of the names he dropped went: "Bernadette Peters' assistant came to the show and said that Cubby O'Brien was the drummer on Bernadette's tour."
The character became clear to the actor through this speech. "It reveals stuff about what he thinks and believes that even I, as the character, don't know till I'm saying it. Most of us in life feel like we've got things pretty much figured out, and then sometimes something comes along and you think, 'Wait a minute! What world am I in? I don't understand what's going on anymore.' I think that's what happens here.
"What really makes it so easy to do is that the people are always there for me," Pierce believes. "It's a very well cast play because these actors all have very different styles of acting, but the styles of each are deeply suited to the characters they're playing, and the styles all mesh with each other so it feels like everybody is in the same play. It's very cozy, and many people who come to the show say the affection the actors have for each other — not the characters always, but the actors — is palpable and comes rushing over the footlights. You really feel that in the audience."
Gotham Hall was the scene of the elegant after-party. A foyer just beyond the entrance was turned into a temporary press room for the evening. While Durang and Weaver beat the tomtoms for their show, their other halves — playwright John Augustine and director Jim Simpson — occupied themselves by doing some snapshot showdowns, taking pictures of each other taking pictures of each other.
First-nighters included Julie Halston, a comic who knows funny and jumped at a chance to see the show a third time; Fyvush Finkel, always up for a good laugh himself; Caissie Levy, late of Ghost: The Musical, and hubby David Reiser; Dogfight duo Derek Klena and Lindsay Mendez; Really Really playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo with Patti Murin, the former Lysistrata Jones; Margaret Colin, classy as always; Phillip Boykin, Crown-less after Porgy and Bess but summer-booked for Show Boat and Jesus Christ Superstar (right now he's readying a staged reading of Lord Tom, the Musical, written by Stanley Jay Gelber and Kimberly Vaughn and inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin); A Little Night Music's Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, expanding into cabaret (54 Below on March 25) and TV soaps ("I start shooting 'One Life to Live' on Wednesday — a swank-hotel worker involved with a client" — the mind boggles); Linda Lavin, L.A.-bound next week to play Sean Hayes' mom in a promising pilot; Victor Garber; Dead Accounts' Jayne Houdyshell with The Trip to Bountiful's Bill Kux; MSNBC's Thomas Roberts; Daniel Breaker and Marsha Mason, who grandly stooped to conquer earlier this week, enough to stir up talk of a Restoration resurrection.
Also present: Colman Domingo, one of The Scottsboro Boys; T. R. Knight, fresh from "The Good Wife"; Lisa Kron, a recent comedic standout in The Good Person of Setchuan; Will Swenson, predicting a reprise of MTC's recent Murder Ballad after he struts out Jack Cassidy's showstopping role in It's a Bird… It's a Plane… It's Superman at Encores! next weekend; Rachel Dratch; double-dating designers William Ivey Long of Cinderella and Paul Gallo of Wonderland; Julia Murney, set to sing the all-Stephen Schwartz evening April 12 with Norm Lewis and Jeremy Jordan at Carnegie Hall; Claybourne Elder, off to Venice at the end of April (not Italy, not California — an imaginary place in a new musical at The Public); Keith Reddin, who had the title role in Durang's Glass Menagerie spoof, For Who the Southern Belle Tolls; Bobby Steggert ("I just finished one of my last rehearsals for Big Fish, and we're going to Chicago on Sunday. Norbert Leo Butz and I are father and son. It's a beautiful, beautiful show. I would say Susan Stroman is the best director I've ever worked with."); Brooks Ashmanskas, putting himself back together after his multi-charactered outing in Clive; Angelica Page, writing a new play and returning before year's end with her one-woman show on Mom Geraldine; writer-director Douglas McGrath, and Kate Bishop and Daddy Andre.
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