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By ERIC GRODE
Baseball fans with extra-disposable incomes are familiar with the idea of fantasy camp. A big paycheck earns you a week in, say, Yankees pinstripes as you shag fly balls and take batting practice with the likes of Darryl Strawberry and Bucky Dent.
Well, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now playing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, can feel a bit like Christopher Durang fantasy camp.
This particular playing field is a simulation of a Bucks County farmhouse, presumably similar to Durang's Bucks County farmhouse. Nicholas Martin, his go-to director for the last several years, puts a dream team of Durang actors through their paces, and they're all masters the writer's disinhibited, genre-fracturing absurdisms. Leading off are David Hyde Pierce, who got his Equity card in Durang's Beyond Therapy, and Kristine Nielsen, who has now starred in five Durang premieres, dating back to Betty's Summer Vacation.
And batting cleanup: none other than Sigourney Weaver, who has famously joined Durang in the Yale pool in The Frogs, in the well-received cabaret act Das Lusitania Songspiel, and on Broadway in his Sex and Longing.
Durang confesses that while he wrote Vanya … Spike, he did a little fantasy casting himself. "When I was younger, I sometimes wrote with specific actors in mind, including Sigourney," he says. "And then I stopped doing that for various reasons: People wouldn't be available, or directors wouldn't want to use them.
"However, I made an exception with this one. I did think of Kristine and Sigourney when I started writing this one, and although I hadn't thought of David, I was thrilled when his name came up."
The result is a cracked update of Chekhov: Vanya (Pierce) and Sonia (Nielsen) still live in a country estate, feeling unappreciated and malaise-y. This time, however, their wealthy and withering relation is Masha (Weaver), an Arkadina-style actress who's mulling selling the estate and the adjacent cherry orchard. (Well, there are maybe a dozen cherry trees. Or fewer.) And there's a rosy-cheeked aspiring actress named Nina.
All of these references are inevitably colored by Durang's off-kilter sensibility, which is why he likes to have familiar faces around. "Their impulses are already so good for my work," he says. "There probably is a bit of a shorthand, although this play has a little more emotional reality than some of my plays, which calls for a more naturalistic performance."
It should be mentioned that "naturalistic" by Durang's definition involves dressing up as Snow White's Evil Queen and then performing her as though she were played by Maggie Smith circa California Suite, as Nielsen's character does. (It's for a costume party, but still…)
"I was at lunch with Kristine about two and a half years ago," Durang says, "and I have no idea what it was apropos of, but she began to do this incredible Maggie Smith impersonation. So it popped into my head when I was writing this. She also does Carol Channing, I've learned, but I don't think that would be as glamorous."
At the age of 63, Durang, who has previously played with the Western theatrical canon in works like An Actor's Nightmare and For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, felt it was time to turn his satiric attentions to Chekhov. "For one thing, I am aware that much more of life is behind me than ahead of me, which is a very Chekhovian idea," he says. "Also, I was sort of feeling like where I live reminded me of Chekhov, where the people who live in the country are always aware that the people who live in the city are having more fun."
Unless, of course, they convince all the city dwellers to come to the country ---or a stage set approximating the country---watch them put on a show.
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by T. Charles Erickson