The Russian history major in me tried to keep a running tally of Chekhov references in Christopher Durang’s new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which runs through March 9 at L.A.’s the Mark Taper Forum. But the show, winner of last year’s Tony Award for Best Play, is so chockfull of them that I lost count. No matter, the comedy is light and easy-breezy, whether you’ve spent countless hours analyzing Russian literature — or not.
David Hyde Pierce, who starred in the New York production, directs the Taper version with a cast of Broadway vets. Mark Blum (Gore Vidal?s The Best Man, 12 Angry Men) plays Vanya, who shares a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his adoptive sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, reprising her New York role). Vanya and Sonia live a life of leisure, funded by their mostly absentee movie star sister, Masha, played by the effervescent Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens) in a part that Sigourney Weaver played in the Broadway production.
The 50-something siblings (by adoption, as Sonia does not hesitate to point out) were raised by academics who were well versed in Russian literature and community theater ? clearly a dangerous combination for their offspring’s mental well-being. Vanya and Sonia spend their days bickering, looking out at a pond and of course their cherry ”orchard” of a dozen trees, and heeding the warnings doled out by their clairvoyant housekeeper, the aptly named Cassandra (Shalita Grant, another holdover from the Broadway production). All hell breaks loose when Masha shows up with her flavor of the month, an ab-tastic twentysomething model — I mean actor ? named Spike (played with sufficient abs — I mean charm — by David Hull).
The play rolls along at a steady clip, following the funny clan as they meet the super cute girl-next-door, Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager, uncannily channeling a Clueless-era Alicia Silverstone), and head to an elaborate costume party at a house once owned by Dorothy Parker. Nielsen shines in these scenes as Sonia comes out of her dowdy shell and slips into a slinky silver dress and a put-on English accent for her meta-costume: ”Evil Queen as played by Maggie Smith Going to the Oscars.” At times, Ebersole can push her character’s mean-spiritedness too far, as when she insists that Nina change into a dwarf costume to match her Snow White theme, but she shares a sisterly bond with Nielsen on stage and her movie-star exasperation is well matched with Sonia’s over-the-top rants.
Blum has an explosive second-act rant of his own, a breathless tirade against the modern world that references everything about ’50s pop culture from Howdy Doody to Dinah Shore to Ed Sullivan. His conclusion: Not everything about the good old days was good, just dependable. And that’s just what Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is ? dependably funny. B+