PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; A Weekend in the Country

By Harry Haun
15 Mar 2013

Billy Magnussen
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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."

Shalita Grant
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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."