PHOTOS: Hollywood stars on stage

Zaks, who went on to direct three more of Durang's early plays, says, "if you read a page of one of his scripts, you're able to identify it as a Durang play. There's that juxtaposition of hysterically funny and poignancy right next-door to each other."

Or as Pierce observes, "Chris hears things differently than the rest of us. He's like some sort of woodland creature with a heightened sense of hearing and sight. He picks up on little nuances of our language and culture that may be bobbling around in our subconscious, but we might not notice."

Durang has also written TV sitcoms, specials and teleplays over the years, but he is probably more familiar to Hollywood as an actor than as a writer. He has appeared in several films since the mid-'80s, was a regular on Kristin Chenoweth's sitcom "Kristin" in 2001, and has acted in his own plays here as well as in New York.

It is not, however, so easy to perform Durang's plays, adds Pierce. "One of the challenges of Chris' plays is, because they're so funny and the situations are so absurd, it can be tempting to play the characters as caricatures. But they aren't caricatures. They are real human beings, and the actors who are best at playing Durang are the ones who are best at allowing the humanity in those voices to come through."

Few Durang interpreters rival Nielsen, performing here in her fifth Durang play. Nielsen refers to Sonia as "a wonderful gift I got from a special playwright" and calls "Vanya and Sonia" "a play of family, middle age and trying to find hope in the world. There's still some rage, with Vanya's rant and his sisters' resentments, but in general, it has so much hope in it. I love the angry man, but I also love this new place he's in."

CRITICS' PICKS: What to watch, where to go, what to eat

Durang has spent nearly two decades in Bucks County with his partner of 25 years, writer-actor John Augustine." "I lived in New York for 22 years, and I loved it, but it was very tense," says Durang. "I started to want trees and a little more quiet."

Perhaps his own ease encouraged the hopefulness he parcels out more freely now to his characters.When sister Masha goes off to a costume party glamorously dressed as Snow White, sad sack Sonia could have chosen to stay home or to dress as a dwarf like her brother Vanya, but she doesn't. She acquires her own glamorous costume, assumes the role of Maggie Smith en route to the Oscars, and, says Durang, "that choice changed her life."

Vanya, Sonia and company in many ways changed Durang's own life. He had three earlier Broadway runs, but they didn't run long and got mixed reviews. Rather, his plays have been produced primarily off-Broadway or in regional theaters.

"I had kind of given up ever winning a Tony, not in bitterness, but thinking that isn't going to happen to me," says the playwright. "I was thrilled when I was nominated. I have been around a long time, and I really felt from people, 'Oh, it's his turn.' I felt lots of people were happy for me, and that was nice. There have been ups and downs, but I got to pursue theater, and I think I've had a rather lucky life. I hope I won't get punished for saying that."

calendar@latimes.com