Rarely has middle-aged despair over dashed dreams and squandered hopes been put to more hilarious effect than in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's giddy farce on Chekhovian themes that won the Tony for best play last year.
The show, directed by David Hyde Pierce following Nicholas Martin's Broadway staging, opened at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday in tiptop shape. Indeed, you can mark this down as a shimmering example of an out-of-town production improving the touted original.
The secret to the Taper's success is the casting of Christine Ebersole in the role of Masha, the aging diva actress who returns to her family homestead in boring but bucolic Bucks County, Pa., towing her new boy toy, Spike (David Hull), and throwing her woebegone siblings, Vanya (Mark Blum) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), deeper into midlife crisis.
Masha, originally played by Sigourney Weaver, is a role better suited to Ebersole, whose comic gifts are every bit the equal of the musical theater talents that earned her Tony Awards for her work in "Grey Gardens" and "42nd Street."
In the spirit of appreciating our theatrical virtuosos while they're still in their prime, let me go on record as saying that Ebersole is this era's Judy Holliday, her predecessor in making the outlandish frantically, poignantly, riotously real.
Although named after one of the title characters of "The Three Sisters," this modern day Masha bears an even more striking resemblance to another of Chekhov's flamboyantly flawed female figures: Arkadina from the "The Seagull," the actress who returns to her family's country estate on summer holiday only to disrupt the peaceful tedium with her endless demands and self-aggrandizing antics.
Vain, narcissistic and unable to withstand the spotlight leaving her for even a second, Masha has little patience for Sonia, her frumpy, adopted 52-year-old unmarried sister who is tormented by her life choices and given to violent tantrums and crying jags. After Sonia confesses that she wishes she had killed herself back in the orphanage, Masha testily replies, "Oh, she's always been jealous of me, I'm really sick of it. I can't help if I'm beautiful and intelligent and talented and successful, can I?"
Chief among Sonia's gripes is the way she stranded herself in this backwater to care for her now-dead parents with Vanya while Masha ran off and became a glamorous star of lurid TV movies. To this, Masha reminds her sister and brother that it was she who has been footing the bills all these years to pay for their relatively luxurious rustic monotony.
Importing a plot twist from "Uncle Vanya," Durang has Masha announce that she is selling the house, leaving Vanya and Sonia no choice but to move to a cramped apartment. Of course Durang, being Durang, has Masha do this while dressed for a costume party as Snow White and ticked off at Sonia for not consenting to go as one of her dwarfs.
Sonia instead masquerades as Maggie Smith playing the Evil Queen in Snow White, a multilayered theatrical impersonation that allows Nielsen to reveal why she's long been one of Durang's most beloved interpreters. Her ability to ricochet from canyons of baleful depression to Alpine peaks of hysterical mania while never running out of gas is on dazzling display here, as it was when she appeared in "Miss Witherspoon" and "Betty's Summer Vacation," two of Durang's most acclaimed works.
Blum is a more subdued Vanya than Pierce, who originated the role and has directed all the actors in such a way that the pathos isn't mowed down by the comedy. There's a delicate anguish to Blum's portrayal of this bookish and theoretically gay man, but when he is asked to deliver a rampaging monologue near the end of the play, a dizzying paean to all that has been lost in his lifetime (black-and-white television with only a few channels, postage stamps that must be licked, Annette Funicello as a puberty-tickling Mouseketeer), boy, does he run with it.
The entire ensemble is first rate. Shalita Grant, a standout of the Broadway cast, has a field day with Cassandra, Vanya and Sonia's voodoo-practicing housekeeper who, like the Ancient Greek character for whom she's named, keeps making predictions that no one can decipher but inevitably come to pass.
Such an outlandish character is perfectly normal in a play that derives so much comic mileage from theatrical in-jokes and playful references to the classical repertoire. The pretext of much of this fun is given by Vanya, who explains that the burden of his and his sisters' Chekhovian names came from professor parents who were peculiarly devoted to community theater.
As for Spike, whose claim to fame is having been almost cast in "Entourage 2," he's too busy finding excuses to strip down to his underwear and show off his killer abs to worry about all the theatrical allusions flying over his head. The character is more than just a teasing visual gag, however. He has some of the best lines in the play, and Hull maximizes the wit of Spike's unwittingly funny rejoinders
Kudos to Liesel Allen Yeager, who shines as Nina, the aspiring young actress (just like her counterpart in "The Seagull"). Yeager infuses this ingénue, who catches Spike's eye and Masha's ire, with all the freshness of a summer breeze — an image that comes readily to mind with the storybook beauty of David Korins' backyard set.
Durang overindulges himself and his performers by giving each character a protracted set piece. Certain bits go on too long and the exposition could be lightened, though the heaviness is delivered with a knowing wink.
What makes the zaniness so memorable is the way the inescapable family feelings of rage, regret and resentment anchor the humor. After Sonia angrily reminds Masha that she didn't cry once at the funerals of their parents, Masha bellows at the top of her lungs, "I hide my feelings" — a quintessential Durang irony and a gift for an actor with Ebersole's guttural comic flair.
'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike'
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 9.
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes