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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
So how did Maggie Smith end up in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?
Near the middle of Christopher Durang's new comedy, now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, Sonia, the put-upon sister of a famous film actress named Masha, reveals that she can do a perfect impersonation of Dame Maggie. Since Masha (Sigourney Weaver) is used to being the center of attention, she finds this very unsettling, especially since she and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) are about to go to a costume party where Masha expects to be the star.
The play's full of such absurdity. During a weekend at their Bucks County home, the sisters---plus their brother Vanya (David Hyde Pierce)---find all sorts of ludicrous ways to dredge up old resentments and fears. Just like a Maggie Smith impression reveals a power struggle, a reading of Vanya's over-the-top play about the environment devolves into a rant about being alienated from modern culture.
But as outlandish as it is, the comedy isn't random. For instance, Vanya's play and rant are both references to Chekhov (just like the character names.) If you know the Russian playwright's work, then you can draw parallels between his ideas and Durang's.
Plus, Durang has been collaborating with his actors for years, so he knows how to use their strengths. And that is why Sonia can do a perfect impression of Maggie Smith. "I'd forgotten I'd ever even done it for him," laughs Nielsen, who's been starring in Durang's plays for decades. "Years ago, we were having lunch, and I'd had an audition that I'd screwed up on. I said, 'Maybe I should've done it like Maggie Smith.' And then I did her. Because I adore her. He just put it in his mind, and lo and behold, he put it into this story.
" When she started workshops of the play, which ran last fall at Lincoln Center and New Jersey's McCarter Theater, Nielsen had forgotten she'd ever shown Durang her impersonation. "When it was there, I went, 'Oh my god!' Why would I do Maggie Smith?' And he said, 'Well, remember, you did it for me.' I re-studied her, and I thought, 'Oh my god, am I any good at it anymore?'"
Thanks to Durang's playwriting, however, the Maggie Smith impression is more than just an joke between old friends. In the second act, Sonia gets a phone call from a man named Joe that she met at the party. At first, she thinks he only called because he remembered how funny she was, so she breaks out Dame Maggie to keep him amused. Slowly, though, she realizes he's calling because he actually likes her, and not just her jokes. As she talks, we see hope crack through her cynicism.
That monologue encapsulates the effect the play: Lunacy gives way to enormous feeling, and we realize that one has always been twined with the other.
Because it's so emotionally dense, the phone call gives Nielsen an enormous acting challenge, and she 's still discovering things about it. (The entire cast has stayed with all three productions.) "You get to go back and re-explore," she says. "With this production, our wonderful director Nicky [Nicholas Martin] had a couple of new questions for me during the monologue. They were things like, 'Don't think it's going to go right at all. Don't assume at the beginning that you know he's asking for a date.' He just changed the tiniest bit of the tone, and it opened new doors."
Martin also asked about the person on the other end of the line: "He opened it up to say, 'It's not going to be just about you. Let's flesh Joe out a little more, so that there is a scene, in a sense.' It was refreshing to say, 'Right, right, right. It doesn't have to just be about Sonia. Find out which oppositions Joe brings in that make Sonia have to work harder.'"
Nielsen stresses what a luxury it is to explore a role across three productions. "You can get into a little bit of a pattern, maybe, where you have one impression of something," she says. "And when you get a few weeks off and come back to it, you come back with a fresher eye. You can say, 'Oh, that's a new path I hadn't thought of.' It can be fun.'"
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor Photo by Carol Rosegg}