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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Christopher Durang's wonderfully offbeat new play mines both the work of Anton Chekhov and universal family dynamics for copious laughs.

Kristine Nielsen, Sigourney Weaver, and David Hyde Pierce in Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike
© T. Charles Erickson
As any savvy theatergoer will figure out before entering Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, a working knowledge of the plays of Anton Chekhov will come in handy to get the myriad in-jokes embedded (and on the surface) of Christopher Durang's wonderfully offbeat new comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Truth be told, an appreciation of Durang's signature brand of Absurdism, is far more necessary an attribute than having seen The Seagull for this work to fully resonate. Should you somehow possess none of these virtues, you can still relish Nicholas Martin's first-class production, anchored by the performances of Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce, and Kristine Nielsen.

Vanya (Pierce) and adopted sister Sonia (Nielsen) are – in true Chekhovian fashion -- bored, lonely, and aimless sitting around their lovely Bucks County home (gloriously rendered by David Korins). Now in their 50s, they lament about having given up their lives (and apparently any chance of reasonable employment) to tend to their now-dead parents, while glamorous older sister Masha (Weaver) travels the world as a world-famous actress.

Life gets temporarily upended when Masha unexpectedly shows up one day – with decades-younger boy-toy Spike in tow (the extraordinarily fit and often semi-dressed Billy Magnussen). She has returned ostensibly to attend a neighbor's costume ball, but also to deliver the shocking news that she has decided to sell the family homestead in order to cut down on her own expenses.

Before that bombshell is even dropped, the siblings find enough to bicker about, including Sonia's unrequited romantic longing for Vanya (who is gay) and her lifelong resentment of the spectacularly self-obsessed Masha. Increasing the tension tenfold, as well, is the sudden appearance of winsome visitor Nina (a perfectly cast Genevieve Angelson), whose youth and innocence unsurprisingly threaten Masha's already precarious well-being. And providing even more fodder for arguments, are the constant (and seemingly nonsensical) presentiments of the trio's aptly-named housekeeper, Cassandra (a hilarious Shalita Grant).

While the piece is somewhat scattershot and a bit too drawn out, the copious laughs come from the many zingers, referential gags, and brilliant non-sequiturs that Durang sprinkles liberally throughout the two-plus hours. It's worth going just to watch Weaver, deliciously game throughout, make her first appearance in her shockingly inappropriate party costume; to view the comically gifted Magnussen's Spike re-create his ridiculous audition for a role in HBO's Entourage 2; and, especially, to hear the priceless Nielsen do a spot-on impression of Maggie Smith in Neil Simon's California Suite.

But as all in of Durang's work, the hysteria is balanced with true heart and soul. When Sonia, the ultimate wallflower, explodes in silent tears of relief and release after receiving an unexpected phone call the morning after the costume ball, Nielsen is simply shattering. When Weaver, primarily playing against her usual strengths, finally manages to find the inner resolve and goodness buried beneath Masha's glamorous yet harsh exterior, one wants to rush to the stage and hug her.

Pierce, who for most of the play emphasizes Vanya's quiet desperation (so well, in fact, that I want to see him actually do Chekhov's Uncle Vanya) deserves a hearty ovation for his rousing delivery of a stunning late-in-the play rant in which he simultaneously celebrates and eulogizes the 1950s, summing up what we've lost and gained in the ensuing decades.

"Now there's Twitter and email and Facebook and cable satellite..and the movies and tv shows are all worthless, and we don't even watch the same worthless things together, it's all separate. And our lives are…disconnected," he laments.

Fortunately, Durang has given us a play to which we can connect, which we can share, and which is anything but worthless.