What do you do with a problem like Masha? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips, including Masha (Sigourney Weaver) herself – after all, it’s not every day that a world-renowned egotistical actress named after a Chekhov character about to enter her fifth marriage confronts long-standing rivalries with similarly named siblings and their emotion-laden homestead.
The show is hilarious, even if you know nothing about Chekhov. The titular siblings’ parents knew plenty, however, and named each child (even downtrodden adoptee Sonia (Kristine Nielsen)) after their favourite roles of the Russian playwright, and inserting those three personalities into an idyllic Virginia lakefront cottage to bounce off one another is inspired. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) rounds out the trio in a quiet, understated role that gets incredible laughs out of minuscule twitches in body language and nuance of inflection.
The crux of the show lies in how each sibling comes to reverse course on key character traits, and my favourite structural element of the writing is how virtually every member of the cast has an extended, measured-in-minutes chance to own the stage. Everyone has the chops to deliver, too; Weaver comes on as a force of nature, railroading Nielsen’s Sonia and barely remembering that her brother is gay. By the end, she has softened, calling out her vacuous fiancé and forging genuine conversations with those who matter to her most.
Many will point to Vanya’s rant against progress as the standout moment of the show, and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so – Pierce delivers a pained, frustrated, long-brewing filibuster that truly sells all of Vanya’s decades of self-restraint, and it is a joy to watch. My favourite, however, was Sonia’s monologue. Alone on the stage, as isolated as she tends to feel, she receives a phone call. A guest at the party she attended the prior evening (a party where she upstaged über-controlling Masha for the first time ever) has called her to ask for a date. Her first date. Sitting quietly in her chair and enduring the the throes of hope, despair, embarrassment and joy that one does in such circumstances, Nielsen’s presence fills the room.
The show’s weak points lie it the book; simply put, it’s a little over the top and too easy, too pat, by half. Psychic housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant), with her posture-jolting premonitions, is never dull and always funny but a little one-note all the same. Spike (Billy Magnussen) never grows beyond his preening idiot schtick (though his reverse striptease managed to be both predictable and utterly relentlessness, which is an adjective I never thought I’d apply to a striptease). Young neighbour Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) is sweet and encouraging because the plot requires her to be. Vanya, Sonia and Masha reach their resolution very easily, considering the baggage they start with, plus there’s the overt symbolism of a heron that may or may not land in the lake any given day. Could the heron represent their hope for a better tomorrow? It’s probably a Chekhov reference, but that doesn’t make it any less of a symbolic sledgehammer. Does the upbeat Beatles song, wonderful as it is, meaningfully represent the thematic peak? All of it is enjoyable, but it has a lightness that takes away from the emotional depth suggested at so many points.
While falling short of profound, V & S & M & S is enormously crowd-pleasing and it’s easy to see why it won the Tony for best play. Catch it before July 30 when Weaver leaves the cast.
4.5 out of 5 cherry orchards (well, cherry groves, at least)