Anton Chekhov always said his somber tracts were comedies, but even he would laugh at seeing how his Vanya, Sonia and Masha fare with their newfound friend, Spike, in the 21st century of Christopher Durang, bowing March 14 at the Golden.
Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike are not the Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice of Bucks County. Three of the four are the scrambled offspring of a couple of egghead college professors with a penchant for community-theatre Chekhov; the fourth, Spike, is literally along for the ride as the sexual accessory of Masha, a grand-dame movie star about to put her stay-at-home siblings out to pasture. Off in the distance, 11 or 12 cherry trees trying to be an orchard quiver at the idea of change.
Chekhovian names and places and themes are playfully kicked about the stage by Durang and his gang of six — seven, if you count director Nicholas Martin who steered this cast through a loopy obstacle course of broad, buoyant comedy.
At all three stops, from Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center to Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse to Broadway's Golden, the show has grown by leaps and bounds. Some have suggested that director Martin has done a little work on the cast during their last five-week rest, but it'd take flames-to-the-feet to get them all to play at this exuberant level.
All the actors exit at least once to exit applause, and each one of them gives full credit for this happy improvement to the house that they're now playing in. It literally pitches the laughs right into the laps of the audience.
A replica of the sun porch of Durang's actual Bucks County farmhouse, meticulously reconstructed by set designer David Korins, fills the stage of the Golden invitingly.
"Last night," said David Hyde Pierce, the show's Vanya and, for all practical purposes, the master of the manor, "I had friends who came and they said, 'It's incredible. The moment you walk into the theatre and you see the set in the space, you go 'Ah! I'm in the right place.' All reactions are bigger. The depth of the silences are bigger when people are caught up in the scene — the scale of the laughs, the length of entrance and exit applause, all that. We've had to learn to surf that.
"It's a lot of things — the size of the audience, the proscenium stage. We had a proscenium at Princeton. When we moved to the Newhouse, it was a thrust stage. We all liked that. It was really interesting and felt more three-dimensional — but, for comedy, it's nice to have that frame around you. It just focuses the energy of the play, and it connects the audience. Because of the focus of the proscenium, all the relationships and all the little connections and subtle looks between people that tell you what's going on — you can see those. When you look only from one direction, actors can shape what the audience sees; if the audience is on three sides, you can't."
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