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Arts and Entertainment

Tony-Winning 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' Channels Chekhov At The Taper

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Characters with names and existential dilemmas straight out of Anton Chekhov exchange bons mots thick with contemporary, neurotic wit in the currently reigning Tony Award winner for Best Play, Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" ("V&S&M&S"). (It is now running at the Mark Taper Forum.) Directed by David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame), who starred in the show's New York production last year, the cast here still features two principal actors in the roles they originated at Lincoln Center and then on Broadway, along with two new leads both good enough to erase any concerns that the L.A. audience is missing out on anything.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha are three late-middle-aged siblings who got their names from a theater-loving father. Masha (Christine Ebersole) is now a famous actress who long ago left her unhappy gay brother (Mark Blum) and unhappier adopted spinster sister (Kristine Nielsen) behind to care for their parents at the bucolic Bucks County (PA) family estate, replete with a small grove (not a full orchard, really) of cherry trees. Back for a rare visit, with her boy toy Spike (David Hull) in tow, Masha drops the news that she can no longer afford the upkeep on the house and plans to sell it as soon as she can.

Armchair Drama Lit. 101 students will likely recognize several basic thematic elements derived from Chekhov's plays even in this cursory summary of the dramatic set-up of "V&S&M&S." But no familiarity with the playwright or his work is actually needed to enjoy this essentially lighthearted, not quite over-the-top comedy (yes, a comedy) about the fear of having lived an unfulfilled life.

It does help, though, to have a preconditioned taste for the kind of big gestural theatricality that Broadway and its institutional satellites often specialize in these days, including digressive applause-bait monologues, high-octane emotive display and a few winking, insider-y allusions to popular trends on the contemporary stage. What makes it all work is the unflaggingly rich humor that keeps pouring out of Durang's script through the mouths of a cast of old theater pros, which CTG (organizational producer of the Taper's shows) can deliver like no other company in town.

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Stepping into the role of Masha played by Sigourney Weaver in New York, Ebersole is magnificently funny as the past-her-prime glamour queen whose Snow White costume party outfit gets her mistaken for Norma Desmond by the aspiring young actress (ahem, Chekhov fans) Nina who admires her so much (a sweet Liesel Allen Yeager). Upstaging her sister for once in her life, Nielsen's dour and schlubby Sonia obeys Masha's edict that she has to attend the party in a Snow White-related costume by taking on the part of the evil "fairest of them all" royal stepmother—as that character would have been played by Dame Maggie Smith.

Blum anchors the proceedings in a lower key as Vanya, the part originally played by Pierce, for most of the show until a thoughtless, unintended slight by Spike, a wannabe TV and movie star in his own right who just missed out on getting cast in the Entourage spinoff Entourage 2, sets him off on a long, long rant about the good old days of the 1950s and '60s. Along with fellow Tony nominee Nielsen, Shalita Grant reprises her Broadway role as Cassandra, the cheeky cleaning lady with uncanny predictive powers, who, of course, plays a crucial part in steering the play's events away from an unhappy conclusion.

David Korins' set sits nicely in the Taper's thrust-stage space, enhanced by new contributions from costume designer Gabriel Berry and lighting man David Weiner.

In addition to all the Chekhov, two references to Neil Simon (one explicit, one indirect) have also been casually tossed into "V&S&M&S," and the evening is full of the kind of uncomplicated, but perfectly targeted, gag lines once prolifically mastered by Broadway's most popular comic writer. Still, the overarching sense of absurdity and Durang's own idiosyncratic brand of sophistication which radiate throughout the play are identifying hallmarks too strong to allow any mistake as to whose work this obviously is.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" plays eight shows a week through March 9. Tickets $20 and up.

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