In a supremely strange synchronicity, two plays that riff on Chekhov opened this past week. One would be occasion enough, but two? Such, apparently, is the power of that old, Russian dramatist. He is a seagull, indeed!
The plays couldn’t be more different. Broadway’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, is a belly laugh a minute, while Guillermo Calderon’s Neva, at the Public, is more serious and political. Both, of course, bring up the classic, Chekhovian themes of disaffection, angst, and boredom, but their methods for doing so couldn’t be more different.
Set in the present day, Vanya… follows three middle-aged siblings, each unhappy in his/her own way. Named after Chekhov characters by their professor parents, the siblings (played brilliantly by David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Sigourney Weaver) spin a hilarious roller coaster of a tale, one where coffee cups are smashed, house cleaners predict the apocalypse, and Snow White costumes are pulled from the closet. All the madcap hilarity kicks into something profound and moving by the end, but the journey there is a smile from ear to ear.
As for the other corner, you may laugh occasionally at Neva, but that’s not the focus of the evening. What is the focus is Olga Knipper, the widow of Mr. Chekhov. Appearing at a dimly-lit rehearsal room on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Olga spends the play talking with two other actors about her late husband, how he died, what it means to make art, and how she both needs and despises her public. Calderon’s theatrical dish is full of ingredients similar to Durang’s, but his proportions are wholly dissimilar.
Were Messers Durang and Calderon in correspondence as they wrote their plays, making sure they focused on distinct turf? Assuredly not, but seen together, their productions show the singularity of an artistic voice: Two writers can start on similar turf, but they almost certainly will end up somewhere different.
PS– I wrote about Vanya… last fall when it played the McCarter Theater… Check out that post HERE.