Christopher Durang, in a Russian Mood, Premieres a New Chekhov-Inspired Comedy

By Harry Haun
06 Sep 2012

David Hyde Pierce
Photo by Joan Marcus
There are two more characters beyond the four title ones. "Cassandra, who's a cleaning woman and soothsayer, is like the Greek-tragedy Cassandra. In some ways, she's like the nanny in Vanya, but she doesn't reflect Chekhov as much. She's sorta American but goes into Greek-tragedy diction, which I had fun working on, as she's seeing things in the future. Sometimes what she sees is inaccurate, but she sees other things that do come true — or Vanya and Sonia fear will come true.

"The sixth character is maybe the closest to Chekhov. It's Nina next door — definitely Nina of The Seagull in Act One when she's still young and fresh and looking forward to life. She comes in because she's such a big fan of Masha the movie star."

Director Nicholas Martin has outfitted the play with seasoned Durang regulars. Sigourney Weaver, the glamorous Masha, has been doing Durangs since their second week at Yale School of Drama. Runner-up in the muse department is stepsister Sonia, Kristine Nielsen, marking her fifth Durang. And the Vanya of the event, the easily exasperated David Hyde Pierce, made his Broadway debut — suddenly — as a very funny sight-gag in Durang's 1982 Beyond Therapy (i.e., the perpetually paged waiter who doesn't show up until a gun goes off — and then he's there like a shot!).

A topic to steer clear of with Durang is Robert Altman's film facsimile of Beyond Therapy. "No, I didn't like what Altman did to that," he is quick to admit. "He rewrote it a lot, and, in rewriting it, the psychology of the characters got more than a little fuzzy. They just seemed to be running around being crazy all the time, but there wasn't any logic to it. It certainly had good actors, but it wasn't very good."

The playground for V&S&M&S is present-day Bucks County, PA, where Durang has lived 14 years with his partner, John Augustine. "The play, I do want to say, is a comedy — in an American way. Some of it ends up a little better than you might think for Chekhov. Now that I'm older, I don't like sending people home feeling too despairing, so, maybe for my own sake, I like to cheer things up a bit." And why not? Chekhov considered his plays comedies of the human condition.

Durang's an impudent imp famous for fun-poking Brecht, Catholicism, cinema, marriage, parenting, et al — but he has his limits, as I recently learned with I rushed into print an urban myth that had been stuck in my head a good quarter of a century — to wit, I swore he once wrote an Amadeus spoof set at The Public Theater, with Joe Papp as the emperor, Elizabeth Swados as Salieri and Marvin Hamlisch as Mozart. Durang asked that the reference be cut from a piece that I wrote about Hamlisch's recent passing. The playwright said that never wrote such a playlet, but he had to admit, "it sounds like something I might have written."