Favorite Moment: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Sometimes, dead silence is the loudest applause.

Indeed, the best moments in theatergoing—staggering moments, spine-tingling moments—often cast a heavy, suspended quiet, not a clappy rumble. There sits the audience, overwhelmed and totally involved, the noisy slapping of hands the last of its concerns.

Such an earned, weighted silence came towards the end of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the rollicking and sweet and beautiful new comedy now at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, soon to greet New Yorkers at Lincoln Center Theater. Kristine Nielsen, playing the frustrated, underloved Sonia, gets a quietly soaring moment that, at the performance I attended, sucked the wind out of the theater. Having attended a costume party the night before, and having been a smash success as “Maggie Smith,” and having finally—finally!—stepped out of the shadow of her movie star sister (Masha, Sigourney Weaver), Sonia fields a phone call from a man who is asking her out.

That’s never happened before.

Sonia handles the man with her typical self-depricating fatalism: No, no, she can’t see him Saturday, so sorry. She’s busy. Yes, she’s quite busy.

Another door shut.

They keep talking.

But… but…

She pauses, jokes, “rechecks her planner.” Maybe, well, maybe.

No, not maybe, yes.

As handled by Nielsen, the moment is momentous and heartbreaking. A woman is offered a surprise gift, and, fighting habit and comfort, says yes.

And when the phone monologue ends, you don’t clap. No, what you’ve witnessed is too intimate for that.

You just sit.

What could be better?

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin
McCarter Theatre, through October 14

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Pictured: Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce


Wacky Times in Search of McPhee

Hope Springer, Paul Gross, and Matthew Kuenne. Photo by Michal Daniel


Let’s say you wrote a play, it was semi-successful, you sold the movie rights, and sight unseen bought a Nantucket trophy home with the winnings. Your lawyer told you to, so really—why not? Land of Herman Melville. Real estate investment. Good stuff. You’ll visit… eventually.

And let’s say that one day you get an alarming phone call from a peeved policeman—your trophy home, as yet untouched by you—is implicated in a child pornography scandal and yup, if you want to get out of this thing intact, you’d better catch the next puddle-jumper out of New York.

And let’s also say that when you arrive, and you start to unravel the dirty business with the policeman, more dirty business comes to head, and all of a sudden the officer is shouting strange words, strange words that you strangely recognize: “I’m not losing you to Uncle Joe Stalin!” he screams, “Stalin in Russian means man of steel. I’m an American; I’m stronger than any man of steel.”


He drops the intensity. “Then I coughed up blood on the white tablecloth,” he says. “I got applause on opening night.”

Opening night?


He’s not just a cop, he’s an amateur actor who’s recently performed in a Nantucket production of The Internal Structure of Stars… that semi-successful play you wrote. The play that paid for the now-irritating trophy home.

And then you remember: You had been invited—nay, begged—to attend his production, but you don’t attend amateur presentations of your work, so you had turned down the invitation.

And that’s why this guy’s upset. More than upset. Enraged. Along with what feels like the rest of this odd little island.


“You,” it turns out, are Edmund Gowery, narrator and core of John Guare’s newest flight-of-fancy play, Are You There, McPhee?, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. And “you” are in for a wild, whirligig of a ride, an outing stuffed with Ritalin and puppets. Borges and Jaws. Lobsters and Disney.

As you make your way from one odd character to another, unraveling the rat’s nest of your life, you realize that yours is the journey of the writer’s comeuppance. The journey of facing your work, and all that it means to people, for good and bad. The Internal Structure of Stars left your pen, found its way to a printer, flew to Nantucket, and spawned itself into a whole new creation—founded in you, yet independent, an object wholly separate from its creator. And now the fans of that new creature expect something of you. But you missed their play. So what’s left to get? Revenge? Gulp.

Guare’s ambitions are large, his emphases manifold—any number of interpretations are viable. But Guare repeatedly seems interested in the bizarre contract between artist and consumer; the curious way one’s work or art or words separate from their creator, become their own breathing organisms, and stand there, complete, ready to be devoured, adored, or manipulated by a fickle and diverse public. On their own.

Gowery, unlike most writers, must confront his public, the independence of his work, and the way that work has woven itself into the lives of his fans, in a direct, cop-story sort of way. Gowery’s fan’s seethe at him, blame him, abuse him. Want him in jail.

But in some funny way, this behavior is the fiercest pledge of fandom, the strongest proof of impactful work.

Guare himself probably has something to say to this. Parts of McPhee are surely based in his experience.

But what responsibility does he bear to reveal those experiences? And what rights do we audience members have to Guare’s attention?

Depends with which characters you side.

Eh, McPhee?

… McPhee…?

John Guare, Wisdom-Monger

An interview featured in the program for John Guare‘s Are You There, McPhee?, at the McCarter in Princeton, includes a particularly striking response from that esteemed playwright. When asked, “What would you like an audience coming to see the play to know?” Guare responds,

“I would like the audiences to be aware of the story that they live in. Are they comfortable in the story of their lives? And another level, what is a love story? It’s two people sharing the same narrative. And what is a divorce? When you realize that your partner is in a completely different story than you are, and you don’t choose to be in that person’s story anymore. You want to more on to a new chapter. We talk about lives in literary terms, “I want to move in to a new chapter.” I would like audiences to look at the story that they’re in. Sometimes it’s so much easier to look to other people’s stories and completely ignore our own story, [and not ask] if our story is giving us nourishment, if we’re interested in our own story. Horror of horrors, when we live in a story that we [realize] is not the story we intended to be in. I think it’s just to be aware of what narrative we have chosen for our lives, what narrative we have made for our lives, and what narrative we can change in our lives.”

Much food for thought.

More soon to come on the play itself.

photo by Paul Chinn/ San Francisco Chronicle

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