"I have always felt irrationally at home in Chris' world," says Tony Award and Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver, beaming at playwright Christopher Durang while discussing their latest collaboration,Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre. "What I love about his work is that it is so full of longing and mischief, but it is also very dear."
Durang and Weaver have been both friends and collaborators for over four decades, since their student days at Yale Drama School, when they first met at a singing class. "I think I was the only person in the playwriting program who ever took that singing class," says Durang. "Sigourney and I were each other's best audiences. I'd look at her and she would be beaming."
In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, loosely inspired by the work of Anton Chekhov, Weaver plays Masha, a glamorous, self-centered actress who unexpectedly descends upon her country house, where her brother and adopted sister live. "I got to thinking about how, in many Chekhov plays, the unhappier characters are living in the country taking care of the house, while the more glamorous people are wandering about having interesting lives," says Durang. "So in my scenario, Vanya [David Hyde Pierce] and Sonia [Kristine Nielsen] ended up taking care of their parents for 15 years through long drawn-out illnesses and feel they haven't had lives, which is what a lot of Chekhov characters feel. And then Masha shows up with her boy toy, Spike [Billy Magnussen] –I love that term boy toy-- and the play just took off from that."
While the work is a comedy -- but not a Chekhov parody, Weaver stresses -- it also has dramatic depth. "It is incredibly moving to play a character like Masha, who has been out of the family fold, and who honestly doesn't perhaps know what she's been missing," she says. "It is so interesting to explore the boundaries of sibling behavior in this play, because whatever else you may be in the real world, you are something else with your siblings."
Masha is the latest in Weaver's indelible gallery of Durangian creations, which includes Jenny in the 1973 Yale Cabaret skit Better Dead Than Sorry, who sings the title song while getting electric shock treatment in a straitjacket; Soot, whose husband calls her "the dumbest white woman alive," in the one-act version of The Marriage of Bette and Boo; the sexually compulsive Lulu in Sex and Longing, and Lidia in Titanic, a young woman who harbors a small menagerie of pets, including a hedgehog, inside her body. "The logic in Titanic is strange, but I think the audience immediately gets that the hedgehog and Lidia are friends," says Weaver. "It's just wonderful to have Chris dare use such a Freudian cliché, but give it to a character for whom it is completely real and ordinary. And doesn't everybody have a hedgehog in their vagina?"
As odd as these roles may sound, Weaver feels they're grounded in their author's reality. "I feel Chris is in all his characters," she says. "That's why I love them all, even when they are unpleasant. He has identified with them. That's why it rings so true. I comfort myself that it is Chris, and that I know this landscape. "
Moreover, Weaver adds that while these roles may be particularly suited for her, they are also parts that any actress might wish for. "Certainly they involve all of you—from the most confident part of you to the most vulnerable," she says. "And the roles are so meaty, regardless of size. You are asked to throw yourself inside out to show the good and bad -- and there is no judgment."