Thursday, April 18, 2024

Beatles Approved: Sigourney Weaver Sends Up Her “Alien” Self in Brilliant “Vanya” on Broadway


You may recall my review of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” from Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. The play was hilarious and fun, the actors were all so marvelous, that I implored them to move it to Broadway. Last week the move occurred, with mostly great reviews (except for a totally bizarre one in the New York Times). I went last night to see it at the John Golden Theater.

I am happy to report that all the zany eccentricity has relocated intact. Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce are the stars, and they follow through with Tony -level performances. But there are several people on stage. Kristine Nielsen is from another world. She’s going to get a Tony Award for this, not just a nomination, and they should give it to her now. Billy Magnussen is a hoot as Masha’s (Sigourney’s) boytoy. Shalita Grant makes one of the best debuts ever on Broadway, fresh out of Juilliard.

Of course, this is a send up of several things. Weaver is satirizing her own career as the star of James Cameron action films. Durang, her close friend, can do this. He is also weaving in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, as well as Greek tragedy. Nielsen, over lunch, apparently did her Maggie Smith impersonation for Durang, and that’s become part of her character that has to been seen to be believed.

And what to say of David Hyde Pierce, who has hit home run after home run on Broadway since “Frasier” ended. This is his best work yet. A raging monologue he delivers toward the end of Act Two will be more than enough to get a Tony nomination. He will be up against Tom Hanks. That’s a real race.

The play: set in Bucks County at a bucolic family home where brother Vanya and adopted sister Sonia (DHP, Nielsen) have lived quietly while their sister Masha (Weaver) has become a famous, globe trotting movie star. Now Masha arrives with the boytoy Spike (Magnussen) ostensibly to sell the house out from under them. Grant is the sassy maid Cassandra who spouts dire prophecies while making tuna sandwiches and toning up her voodoo doll skills. There’s also an ingenue named Nina, played by the lovely Genevieve Angelson.

Durang juggles a lot– all the parody and satire, not to mention the realities of family, aging, careers, love late in life. You’re laughing so much of the time, it’s important to remember that there are some profound things being discussed. I adore Sigourney Weaver, and as Masha she can do no wrong. If you only know her from “Avatar” this is a whole other side. Masha is quite arch, outsized, and more than a handful. She really is larger than life, something the Times review didn’t get. Masha is self-absorbed with just a hint that somewhere under well maintained facade she may understand what’s going on with her hapless siblings. It’s a beautiful performance.

Weaver will have to leave “Vanya et al” sometime in June or July, I guess, to do one small movie before she shoots the “Avatar” sequels. She’s essential, and will win some awards. But I do hope the play will go on after she exits. It would be a shame to deny audiences of this much fun. And I’ll bet there are a lot of actresses– Christine Baranski and Alison Janney come to mind– who’d like a crack at playing Masha. In the meantime, fight your way in to see these people ASAP.

PS This show is Beatles approved: the producers got the rights to George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and the Beatles’ master recording. I won’t give it away. But it’s a rarity for the group ever to approve such a thing. And it’s a lovely value added in an already great night.

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Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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