PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; A Weekend in the Country

By Harry Haun
15 Mar 2013

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Durang has drafted his two most favorite and frequently used muses into playing Pierce's contentious sisters — kooky Kristine Nielsen as Sonia, the carping, man-less homebody, and glamorous Sigourney Weaver as Masha, the narcissistic, much-married movie star who travels with a buffed-up, dim-bulb boy-toy named Spike (Billy Magnussen). In the service of Durang, Nielsen usually keeps her head in a vague bobble so that you can — if you listen — hear a slight rattle, while Weaver does Durang with an unassailable strength and intelligence and attractiveness.

How these two got on the same ditzy-sister wave-length is beyond me, but the suspicion is strong that Martin locked Weaver in a closet with Nielsen overnight and she came out with a distinct, matching rattle. In any event, any trace of the ball-busting sci-fi heroine she played in the "Alien" series is buried under wide-eyed silliness and a Shirley Temple vocal delivery. Weaver has reached her anti-"Ripley."

"What a great way to say it!" Weaver lit up at that compliment. "Ripley's so much harder to do than this kind of comedy. Only Durang gets me to do anything like this."

The actress and the playwright have been friends and comedy conspirators since his second week at Yale School of Drama, and there have been numerous roles — Masha among them — that Durang wrote with her specifically in mind. (Masha craves to be a serious actress but was sidelined by a hit flick series about a serial killer.)

At the curtain call, the star abandoned the stage and personally delivered her flowers to her longtime pal and playwright, who was four rows from the stage in a wheelchair, the result of a recent fall. Director Martin, also in a wheelchair, was seated farther back in the theatre, lest some wiseacre find them together and say, "Gentlemen, start your engines," or mistake them for The Men Who Came to Dinner.

"I'm proud of the ensemble and the kind of work we did," Martin admitted. "David and Kristine had that relationship from the first rehearsal — and Sigourney, her relationship with them. I've been extremely lucky — and I've been extremely careful — choosing this cast because I really do think this is Chris' best play.

Kristine Nielsen
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"It was thrilling to sit in the house. It was like a rock concert. I'm proud of all of our designers. Every step of the way, we had the most wonderful producers — all along at each theatre: Emily Mann at the McCarter Theatre, Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater and now Joey Parnes and Larry Hirschhorn."

Nielsen, arguably the epicenter of fun in the play, said she had lots of help from the cast. "I feel like we're all extraordinary actors," she said. "I thought we acted as a family very well. Oh, the proscenium for comedy — give it to me anytime. It makes you focus, and, as a group, we were able to do that more for each other. We were off for five weeks, which I think was healthy. Everybody could clear their mind and start up again. I thought Nicky had some very good simple adjustments. You get to re-rehearse, and usually you don't get to. It's like 'Omigod! We made it to Moscow!'

"I have learned so much from Sigourney. She's one of my favorite actresses to work with. I've had the privilege of working with her several times. I think she gets Chris like nobody gets Chris. I like to think I sneak in sometimes and get him, but I know their history. Her insanity — it's been so much fun, like sisters. She shares so much."

On stage, the sisters hit a major schism over the big society event of the play—a costume ball occurring in a neighboring farm. Masha decks herself up as Disney's Snow White and expects everyone else to fall in line as her dwarfs. Vanya obliges, replete with an above-and-beyond squat-walk, but Sonia will only agree to the Evil Queen — and then, only one played by Maggie Smith. It's a bit of business from real life that Durang saw fit to write into the play, and it must be said Nielsen does a mean Maggie Smith! "At lunch with Chris once, I just started doing it," she recalled. "I had lost some audition and said, 'Maybe if I had been Maggie Smith' — because she's so brilliant, and every time you use her voice, you're so much better and more interesting."