"I am a wild turkey," says Kristine Nielsen's Sonia with wretched despair, but you can't immediately tell who gets the Chekhovian in-joke in Christopher Durang's wonderful new comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now at Broadway's Golden Theatre. Because even if you've never seen The Seagull, anyone in the audience with half a brain and the desire to laugh is probably guffawing out loud, thanks in part to Nielsen's hilarious, if strident, delivery. And indeed, this brilliant, often absurd comedy, now somehow deeper and funnier than it seemed just a couple months ago at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, proves to be one of the highlights of the theatrical season.
Intriguingly, the play begins on a somber note as sad-sack Sonia and her equally unhappy, gay brother Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) are mourning their lives of wasted opportunities. Things don't seem so bad to us, especially as they're residing in the beautiful Bucks County house (designed with great verisimilitude by David Korins) in which they grew up. We soon learn that they don't really own the residence; it's been left to — and is paid for — by their glamorous, globetrotting actress sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), who returns home for a quick visit that threatens to upend everyone's lives.
Masha seemingly has it all — including Spike, a stunning if slightly stupid young boy toy (played by the extraordinarily in-shape and staggeringly funny Billy Magnussen). But just like in Chekhov's work, no one is ever truly happy. Masha, embodied by Weaver with striking grandiosity and self-involvement, is worried about losing her most valuable asset: her looks. And her already fragile sense of self is further threatened when Spike latches on to adorable young neighbor Nina (the winning Genevieve Angelson). Nor is she particularly thrilled about the presence of aptly named housekeeper, Cassandra (the marvelous Shalita Grant), who spouts gloom-and-doom lines from Greek tragedies on a moment's whim — and who also knows her way around a voodoo doll.
Durang's characters lob verbal bon mots — many of them not-so-subtle references to Chekhov's plays — at a dizzying pace, but it's not just their cleverness or the cast's sublime timing that make this production so consistently uproarious. Director Nicholas Martin, who paces the play with such a steady hand that its nearly two and a half hours fly by, also gets his actors to do whatever is physically required. It's impossible not to roar the second Weaver steps on stage in her ill-chosen party costume (just one of the many spot-on touches contributed by costume designer Emily Rebholz). Meanwhile, Magnussen's Spike not only takes off most of his clothes on a moment's notice, but bumps and grinds his way through a spectacularly silly "reverse striptease," while Pierce's Vanya is subjected to any number of humiliations, including Spike snapping the older man's nipples whenever the urge strikes.
But as in much of Durang's best work, it's the heartbreak that is as memorable as the hilarity. Nowhere is that more evident than in the second-act scene when Sonia, long convinced that love will never find her, receives a telephone call from an admirer the morning after she's attended that same costume party (as the Evil Queen in Snow White as played by Maggie Smith). For this scene alone, the actress could earn this year's Tony Award, and her magnificent, varied work throughout the play makes her worthy of every acting honor imaginable.
Weaver's Masha is so overly dramatic at times that you might want to burst out of your seat and slap her, but we come to realize how even her worst behavior is fueled by insecurity and her own sense of failure. For most of the play, Pierce offers up a deadpan, understated delivery of his lines — which can simultaneously bring a tear to our eyes and a smile to our faces — but when he finally lets loose with a remarkable, over-the-top tirade about the glories (and idiocies) of the 1950s, the actor receives a prolonged, well-deserved ovation.
In the end, Durang leaves us with a message about the importance of family (much as Chekhov did) and a reminder that even for the heartsick, laughter is truly the best medicine.