Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Call it "Revenge of the Theater Nerds."

The unmistakable sounds of pleasure emanating from the seats during performances of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE might at first seem rather out of balance with what's happening on stage. To be sure, this warm and winning comedy from Christopher Durang contains more than its share of zingers, quips, and antics, which only grow funnier as the evening progresses. And it certainly boasts one of the most impressive casts in town, from Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce to the brilliant Kristine Nielsen. There are plenty of reasons why the folks both onstage and off should be having fun.

But as the play's title suggests, this ebullient energy at the Golden Theater has a lot to do with an unlikely source for quick laughs: Anton Chekhov. Durang has blanketed his script with references to the Russian master, using his signature setting (a country house) and his unique collection of character foibles to sendup Chekhov's best-known works. The effect, at least in act one, is that of sitting through an extended theatrical in-joke, during which you'll probably be pleased to demonstrate, with laughter and applause, just how much you "get it." Even if you're not terribly well-versed in turn-of-the-century Russian theater, however, hang in there; this is considerably more than sketch comedy. What emerges, before it's all over, is a true and surprisingly tender human drama.

Vanya and Sonia (played by Pierce and Nielsen, respectively) have lived in their Pennsylvania estate for decades--- since childhood, actually. They took care of their ailing father, while Masha, their glamorous movie star of a sister (played by Weaver), sent checks and avoided visiting. Now Masha has returned home with the news that she's planning to sell the place, sending her already depressed siblings into a frenzy of heartache and panic.

And--- oh yes--- Masha brought home a friend, too. That would be Spike, a cartoonishly well-muscled boyfriend several decades younger, whose claim to Hollywood success is that he was very nearly cast in the lead of "Entourage 2." Spike, a shirtless presence through much of the play, seems to have roaming eyes, most recently for Nina, the earnest aspiring actress from next door. He obviously doesn't belong here, and this youthful intrusion into the stifling land of the status quo sparks most of the drama in Durang's script.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Pierce's defeated Vanya sparkles with new life when Nina eagerly agrees to perform his play (whose protagonist is "a molecule") and Pierce wears the vulnerability well. It all leads up to an explosive eleventh-hour monologue in which Vanya decries the disconnectedness of modern culture, and if the ideas are less-than-convincing, Pierce at least convinces you that Vanya believes them. Weaver, meanwhile, is a celebrity playing a celebrity, and while that's probably not as easy as it sounds, she does it admirably. Shalita Grant is a scene stealer as Cassandra, the housekeeper with spooky premonitions.

But ultimately, my heart belonged to Nielsen's Sonia, who at the start is the play's most ostentatiously damaged character. I won't say much about her utter transformation, but I'll note that it begins when she decks herself in a green Oscar-like gown and delivers a hilarious impersonation of Dame Maggie Smith. In act two, she receives an unexpected phone call from a gentleman suitor, and to my mind, this magnificent monologue represents the moment that Durang's play fully embraces the spirit of Chekhov. As you watch Sonia struggle against her crippling lifelong melancholy to accept the promise of love, it's all you can do to keep yourself from audibly cheering her on. Chekhov, a physician by trade, possessed an unparalleled ability to write many different kinds of people in withering but utterly sympathetic terms. He'd probably grow tired of all the mockery, but if he watched all the way through to the end of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, I can't help thinking he'd be proud.