‘Vanya & Sonia’: continuous laughter that doesn’t add up

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No American playwright has a zanier imagination than Christopher Durang, or has given wilder stage opportunities to actors, but the jokes and the high-energy fun never seem to add up to a coherent play.

Going all the way back to “A History of the American Film,” I’ve been having great times watching performers cut loose in Durang shows. In that 1977 play, at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., then-unknown Swoosie Kurtz made me a fan for life with an incredible scene in which she mashed up who-knows-how-many-movies, including a visit with the wheel-chair bound Dr. Strangelove.

A few years later, Durang muse Sigourney Weaver was equally hysterical in the first New York City production of “Beyond Therapy” at the long-defunct Phoenix Theatre.

Significantly, both plays flopped when they hit Broadway, and Durang has been a creature of off Broadway and regional theater ever since.

Weaver gets another chance to shine in the latest Durang comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — along with a great ensemble that includes David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen — but the spoof of Chekhov set in contemporary Bucks County doesn’t really add up to much.

A middle-aged brother and sister (Hyde Pierce and Nielsen) bemoan their wasted, isolated lives — ala “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard” — and are horrified when their famous actress sister (Weaver) comes home to let them know she is tired of supporting them, and will be selling the property.

Nicholas Martin has directed the cast to deliver floridly theatrical performances that seem to be meant to encapsulate the most self-pitying moments in Chekhov, and for much of the time, the actors and the intentionally mannered style score laugh after laugh.

Durang gives each actor a comic aria — the longest and most memorable one being the angry brother’s explosion after the actress’ boy toy (the very funny Billy Magnussen) dares to use his iPhone in the middle of an important family gathering.

Hyde Pierce waxes nostalgic about his childhood in the 1950s and the “shared experiences” Americans had on TV and at the movies back then because of fewer choices. The frenzied way that the confused brother builds up “innocent” shows like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and then has to recognize their banality a moment later ends with the actor getting a well-deserved ovation.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs out of gas near the end because it is simply too long to sustain its slender premise — the show winds up playing like a series of devastatingly funny comedy sketches that never stick together.

(“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln center through Jan. 20. For performance and ticket information, visit www.LCT.org)

Joe Meyers

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