Christopher Durang’s Chekhov takeoff Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike begins performances Sept. 7 at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center, then opens in New York on Oct. 25 at Lincoln Center Theater. Nicholas Martin directs an all-star cast, many of them pals of the playwright.
AMERICAN THEATRE: What inspired Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?
CHRISTOPHER DURANG: I read and saw Chekhov in my twenties. And as a young man, I had empathy for the characters and felt a kinship with the melancholia. But now that I have more behind me than ahead of me, I suddenly feel like some of the Chekhov characters—paths not taken, regret, etc. I started to write a “what if” scenario…what if I never left home? What if I and an adopted sister took care of our aging parents while our famous actress sister traveled the world, having a life?
Will Chekhov be rolling over in his grave, or laughing gleefully, or some combination thereof?
I don’t think he’s in his grave. I think he and Thornton Wilder have achieved nirvana and their spirits are sending wonderful vibrations throughout the entire universe. Although they don’t seem able to stop global warming…
How would you classify the play—adaptation? Parody? Satire? Something else?
The play is not a parody or a satire. It is a comedy set in the present time in Bucks County, Pa. (where I live). The conceit is that Vanya, Sonia and Masha were named by their professor parents after Chekhov characters. Masha is a famous movie star, which makes her more like Madame Arkadina. Still, I am playing with Chekhov themes and characters, and I’ve been saying I put them into a blender. Adding apples, carrots and kale.
The cast includes several actors with whom you’ve worked before.
Vanya is David Hyde Pierce, Sonia is Kristine Nielsen and Masha is Sigourney Weaver. Sigourney and I were at Yale School of Drama together, and our first year she was in a one-act musical I wrote, and was just wonderful. I was in it, too. Later in the year, she and I were cast in three other plays together. My favorite was a children’s show where Sigourney played an Evil Baroness and I played her troll, who liked to be hit. I’m proud to say that David got his Equity card when my Beyond Therapy was on Broadway. And Kristine, as Mrs. Siezmagraff in my Betty’s Summer Vacation, was indelibly funny. Though she can also be heartbreaking with the right role.
Are you acting in anything upcoming?
No. But I would like to act again. My hair is silver now, and I’m very good casting for amiable grandfathers, or incompetent uncles, or befuddled ministers. Usually I’m cast as a milquetoast. Except in my own plays, where I get to be smart. I wouldn’t mind someone else casting me as intelligent.
What have you been doing with your summer?
My partner John and I have just gotten a new dog from a shelter. We are teaching it to jump through hoops, and how to alphabetize an index to a book.
Do you have any guilty-pleasure artistic influences?
As I get older, I find the movies from the 1950s and early 1960s are soothing to me. I keep them on DVR, and turn them on to fall asleep to, like a young child hearing a favorite book read to him. North by Northwest, Around the World in 80 Days, Les Girls, even Midnight Lace.
What was the craziest summer job you had?
I was a singing waiter on Cape Cod. At 10 p.m. we put on 30-minute sets of specific musicals. We did Gypsy, and fellow waiters Stephen and Dario and I were a hit singing the strippers’ song, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” We didn’t dress as women, but we had little props. I was Miss Electra, and had two pencil thin flashlights pinned to my T-shirt, and I would light them up at the appropriate times during the song.
What’s your first theatrical memory?
I wrote a two-page play in second grade, based on “I Love Lucy,” and they put it on at my school. I got to choose which eight-year-olds played Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred.
If you weren’t a playwright/actor/teacher, what might you have done?
I thought of going into movies—in college I was obsessed with film. And I thought of being a social worker, which was my idealistic side. Oh, and maybe a lawyer specializing in constitutional topics.
It’s not theatre if…
…it doesn’t put you to sleep. No, that’s wrong. If it doesn’t cost $500 for special seats. Well, that’s true, but depressing. It’s not theatre if…there aren’t good songs, or unless it makes you laugh, or makes you cry, or holds your attention and transports you to somewhere else.
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