Vanya and Mound Builders Defy Categorization

Puzzle pieces

Christopher Durang's new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Golden Theatre), which has just transferred to Broadway from its Lincoln Center run, shows you one key difference between critics and audiences. Audiences need only to enjoy a play; critics need to tell you what kind of play it is. Where Christopher Durang's concerned, that's not so easy. Ask me what to call Vanya et al., and watch me scratch my head. I know I had a good time at it, but what kind of good time was it? Is this a comedy, a drama, a Chekhovian mixture of the two, a social satire, or a literary spoof whose references zip from Aeschylus to Disney? At various moments, it's all of the above.

Durang's Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) are three siblings (one adopted) occupying a house in bucolic Bucks County. Their parents were professors of literature who loved Chekhov. Along with their first names, the three seem to have acquired the sense of disappointment in life that notoriously overwhelms Chekhov's characters.

Even Masha, a wealthy cinema superstar who owns the house but is rarely there, drips with disappointment: five failed marriages and a career consisting largely of sequels to a serial-killer movie.

David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Carol Rosegg
David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Details

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Christopher Durang
Golden Theatre
251 West 45th Street
212-239-6200
vanyasoniamashaspike.com

The Mound Builders
By Lanford Wilson
Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org

The Lying Lesson
By Craig Lucas
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street
212-279-4200, atlantictheater.org

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Bipolar, self-pitying Sonia fixates on her status as an adoptee, and on her gay but ultra-repressed brother, Vanya. Having spent their adult years supported by Masha's money and nursing their increasingly demented parents through a protracted senility, the two live in gloomy isolation, relieved only by their African-American cleaning woman, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), who, true to her name, spouts prophecies of doom spiced with Durangian verbal salsa.

Masha swoops onto this morose scene bearing three provocations: a group invite to a local masquerade party; the news that she intends to sell the house (cherry orchard included); and her latest flame, a wannabe actor named Spike (Billy Magnussen). Feckless, ferociously sexy, and shamelessly narcissistic, Spike embodies everything that these three walking midlife crises might hold against—or envy—the younger generation.

Spike knocks everything cockeyed, particularly perturbing Masha when Nina (Genevieve Angelson), the neighbors' pretty, stage-struck niece, happens to drop by. Masha's plans start to unravel while everyone dresses for the masquerade. Next thing you know, Spike's caught texting while a play that Vanya wrote is being read aloud. This triggers an epic outburst from Vanya; climactic revelations spill out that reconfigure everybody's relationships. Once calm is restored, doubts and disasters may still loom but the comic spirit prevails.

There's no sense analyzing a work with such constant shifts of tone and such a steady flow of japery. What's fascinating is how well it sustains its energy and how much genuinely "Chekhovian" feeling it generates. Could it stand by itself without leaning on its references? Possibly not. Yet its crazy, mixed-up spirit—perplexed, angry, anxious and funny—feels distinctively its own, and very much of our time.

Nicholas Martin's production helps hugely by taking the moments of comic excess far enough and no further. Since Lincoln Center, both Magnussen and Grant have modulated their tactics without any loss of manic glee. Nielsen's performance has ripened, grounding every comic point in true emotion, while Pierce's masterful display of deadpan reactions continues unabated. Only with Weaver, a longtime Durang expert, has Martin gotten oddly mixed results; she effortlessly lands so many lines that you wonder why she apparently feels a constant need to push for effect.

Lanford Wilson's 1975 drama, The Mound Builders (Signature Center), likewise infuses a puzzling form with a Chekhovian spirit. The story of an archaeological dig that goes horrifically wrong one rainy summer in southern Illinois, Wilson's dark, down-home tragedy seemingly starts as a slender vacation comedy, about the conflicts among some eccentric academics and one truculent local (Will Rogers). The script, tossed at you in fragments, flashes back from slides projected, months later, by the wrecked expedition's rueful head (David Conrad).

Though Wilson lays out everything pellucidly, the play's jagged shape and overlapping dialogue make its narrative tricky to parse. Reality's a puzzle you can only piece together in retrospect. Wilson sardonically parallels our puzzle-piecing process with the archaeologists' progress. The deeper they dig, coming ever closer to a gigantic find, the more we learn about the tangled affairs of the expedition head's troubled wife (Janie Brookshire) and alcoholic novelist sister (Danielle Skraastad), as well as those of his gung-ho younger colleague (Zachary Booth) and his wife (Lisa Joyce). They all get caught up in the muddy events as the story rolls toward its agonizing climax, in which everything that any of them hopes for is destroyed. Probably one of the biggest plays of its time, The Mound Builders is also, for all its tenderness, among the bleakest and the toughest to fathom fully.

Jo Bonney's production follows Wilson's clues painstakingly, and yet something's off-kilter. The cast, young and brash, often seems to present their roles in sketch form, alternately explicit and blurry. The evening lacks vibrancy. Still, the play, big, powerful, and quirky, demands to be seen.

Not so Craig Lucas's The Lying Lesson (Atlantic Theater). Generally, one shouldn't miss a Lucas play. Frustrating or disappointing though it may be, some deep thought usually lurks underneath, seeking expression. Here, disappointment comes from far too much lurking being done onstage, by the characters. An old dark house, a stormy night: Two women, both intruders, confront each other, both initially lying about who they are. Buried secrets emerge, butcher knives are waved, as is a gun that's "not loaded" but goes off anyway.

It all sounds like an ultra-tacky 1970s Bette Davis shriek-fest, and indeed, one of these women is Davis herself, incarnated by Carol Kane, effective despite her wrecked voice, which renders half her lines incomprehensible. But even Lucas can't build a cheesy thriller into a meditation on art and truth, no matter how historic—or histrionic—its heroine. Pam MacKinnon, directing, manages to keep the play's opposing sides from collapsing in on each other; Mickey Sumner is plausible as Kane's implausible antagonist. But it's a bumpy night.

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