'Vanya': Durang strikes an unexpected peace with an indifferent Broadway

Kathleen McCall and Sam Gregory play a couple of “Snow White” siblings in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen. 

When some people hear Christopher Durang’s newest comedy has undertones of Anton Chekhov, they might mistake the play for “spinach theatre.” You know the kind: You take it because you know it’s good for you, but you don’t particularly like it going down.

But in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, characters are running around in their underwear. They rant and rave. They are dressed as dwarfs—and a highly dubious Snow White.

For those in the know, Durang’s 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play is smart, silly entertainment with wonderful literary roots.

But Chekhov isn’t the spinach. It’s the cherry on top.

And curiously enough, Russia’s hilariously dour dramatist has become an unlikely hot commodity of late. Chekhov takeoffs by Durang, Donald Margulies (The Country House) and Aaron Posner (Stupid F***ing Bird) abound. Why, he’s become the most popular 154-year-old in theatre.

Just don’t blame it on Durang, who has never before been produced in the 36-year history of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company. He didn’t set out to write the next big comic play to sweep the nation.

He just did it.


Durang says he took Chekhov themes and characters and put them into a comic blender. But he emphatically denies that what poured out into the juice cup is a parody of Chekhov. But if not, then what is it?

Perhaps it’s easier to say what it isn’t.

The play is not set in pre-revolutionary Russia. It’s set in Bucks County, Pa. “They don’t have samovars, and they don’t pay for things with rubles,” Durang wrote of his own play. It also isn’t a play with a cast of characters named Nikolayevna, Konstantin, Irina or Boris—and that doesn’t begin to hint at the middle and last names.

Instead, it’s “Chekhov-lite.” 

“I’m as old as Uncle Vanya,” Durang said in an interview with Applause from his home in Pennsylvania. “I read all the major Chekhov plays when I was in my 20s, so I’d always been a young man empathizing with the older characters but not really identifying with them as I do now.

“Unlike Vanya or Konstantin, I did try the things I wanted to do with my life and had some nice luck getting my plays done. From there I went into a kind of ‘what-if’ mode. What if…I had not? What if…I had gone to college, but then gone back home and then my parents got sick and blah-blah-blah…? That was my jumping-off point. And as I was writing, the play just took on a life of its own.”

A life that is poignant, pointed and very funny. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike reflects the themes and characters of Chekhov—regret, reflection, self-doubt and pain. It just so happens that pain, in the live theatre, is often quite funny.

Durang had written a draft of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike before being offered a commission from the McCarter Theatre at Princeton, and also had started a political play he had not yet finished.

“I did an unusual thing,” he said. “I asked them if I could have a reading of Act One of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Act One of this unfinished political play. I wanted to see which one they preferred, secretly hoping that they would go for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Well, now we know they did. The McCarter then invited Lincoln Center to co-produce.

Did he have any idea that this quirky little comedy would become a hit?

“I did not. It was a lovely surprise,” said Durang, whose writing has been described as “manic,” “wicked,” “ferociously funny” and “ecstatically angry.”

“Early in my career I had two plays on Broadway: A History of the American Film (1978) and Beyond Therapy (1982). They weren’t disasters, but they weren’t very successful, either, and had short runs.

“I sort of made peace with the fact that seemingly my plays didn’t work for Broadway.”

Who would have thought that Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would not only make it to Broadway, but also win the Tony? Not Durang.

“It was not aimed for Broadway,” he confirmed. “I did no major rewrites, just semi-important rewrites at McCarter and then a little more at Lincoln Center. But the audience response was very strong.”

Durang admits he was “totally surprised” when Broadway producers came calling. It was the validation of a life’s work and of his very idiosyncratic skewed puppy-dog wit and off-beat style, much admired when he was young and now finally welcomed into the mainstream.

Editor’s note: This article was complied from an interview by Sylvie Drake, former DCPA Director of Publications, and materials made available by the McCarter Theatre.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Through Nov. 16
Ricketson Theatre
Accessible Performances: Nov 15, 1:30 pm
Tickets: 303.893.4100 | denvercenter.org
800.641.1222 | TTY: 303.893.9582
Groups (10+): 303.446.4829

Our previous coverage of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Vanya … is the most popular play in America
Vanya … First rehearsal photos
Check out our Study Guide

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