Poking at Profundity: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The emperor is wearing something at the Golden Theater, but to say it's more than a T-shirt and shorts would be generous. While the audience reacted eagerly on the night of this reviewer's attendance at Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the surrounding enthusiasm was a sentiment that could not be fully shared here.

The promise of something profound is ultimately unfulfilled in this haphazardly heady play that feels more like a situation comedy made for cable than a comedy belonging on a stage. Characters are named after famous figures from Chekhov and Greek mythology, and similarities to their namesakes are explicitly presented, but behind the smoke screen of literary illusions there is little there.

David Hyde Pierce provides the production's most redeeming performance, defying the script's deficiencies to bring some life to the resigned Vanya. With relaxed deliveries and an unassuming, yet endearing, presence, Pierce's facial expressions and timing provide humor where the words are found wanting, and he heroically handles an epic second-act rant that would leave a lesser actor in a wordy lurch.

Sigourney Weaver has less luck with Masha, pushing with a total commitment that results in an unfortunately labored performance, exhausting to watch and hard to believe. Billy Magnussen suffers from a similarly futile long-distance sprint on a treadmill to nowhere, though he does so with greater ease and a comfort on the stage that Weaver desperately struggles with. Kristine Nielsen offers some touching moments as the self-doubting Sonia, warranting some genuine sympathy, and Genevieve Angelson gives a little grace and charm to an otherwise hollowly written Nina, the young, aspiring actress, steeped in a professed appreciation for the likes of Ingmar Bergman, who is illogically also awed by the work of an actress whose great claim to fame is a series of schlock horror films. Shalita Grant beams with strength and confidence as Cassandra, the world's most unlikely soothsaying maid.

These caricatures struggle for a fleshed-out humanity that playwright Christopher Durang denies them. Characters are reduced to devices of delivery; Durang's voice rings through the cardboard cut-outs that are his crafted messengers.The production's greatest flaws are rooted in the writing. Unable to surpass the failings of the script, director Nicholas Martin leaves his actors to fend for themselves, resulting in a strikingly uneven balance of performances with Pierce and Weaver on opposite ends of a wide and tilting scale. Relying on energetic feats to leap the empty spaces of the script, Martin allows his actors to sweat in vain, as they flail and jump under his ineffective watch.

As hard as this play is to swallow, it is easy to digest and passes quickly. There are funny deliveries and some semi-touching moments that seem to pull huge responses, but nothing that is bound to be of a lasting quality. This is very light comedy wearing the wig and robe of something more profound. - C. Jefferson Thom

The Golden Theater is at 252 West 45th St., New York, NY 10036.

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

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