If you’re up on your Chekhov, you know that Vanya is the title character from Uncle Vanya. You’ll know that that Sonya works with him in the same play. You’ll probably remember that Masha is the middle child in Three Sisters. But you’ll be hard-pressed to figure out who Spike is. None of which matters according David Hyde Pierce (aka Niles Crane from Frasier). Pierce, who originated the role of Vanya in Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is directing the Los Angeles production. The play opens Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.
“Chris [Durang] has done such a beautiful job of layering in the sort of information you need to get most of the references,” says Pierce. “There are sly allusions; if you know Chekhov, you’ll catch those. They are all carefully threaded into the real events of this play. Chris is a genius at mixing weird contemporary stuff with classical theatrical language and coming up with his own unique hybrid.”
Set in Pennsylvania the play tells the story of Vanya (Mark Blum) and his adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), who live in the family house where they took care of their now deceased parents. Sister Masha (Christine Ebersole), an actress in B-movies who supports her siblings, arrives to attend a nearby costume party with her much younger boyfriend Spike (David Hull). While there, Masha announces her plan to sell the house. Old family dynamics come roaring back to life just as Cassandra (Shalita Grant), the voodoo-practicing cleaning woman had predicted.
“It’s not just a funny play. It’s actually a great play that will stand the test of time. But Chris’s plays are not foolproof. His language requires actors who have an ear for it. There are funny people who don’t have the ability to do Durang. But everyone here has the ear for it and the timing of it. They know how to embrace the absurdity of it without ever straining into caricature,” says Pierce.
Pierce, who had directed The Importance of Being Earnest and the musical comedy It Shoulda Been You in 2012 was not originally planning to direct Vanya. “[Original director] Nicholas Martin had conflicts and couldn’t do it. He and Chris knew I had been directing recently. They felt like I was someone who was familiar with the play and someone who really cares about it. I said ‘absolutely’ when they asked. The challenge we have is that half the company is from the original production and half is brand new.”
How difficult is it for him to direct an actor in a role that he originated? “It’s been a great partnership, a great dance. I’ve been very careful not to try to lead Mark Blum toward what I used to do. He is a great actor and he’s done things that have had me go ‘Wow, that’s how that works.’ But he hasn’t had the same amount of time we had. So I can give him shorthands to help him with a connection he’s already making or maybe to highlight things that happen early in the play that pay off later.”
Which means, according to Pierce, that this production is a little different. “But not in a way that I can characterize,” he says. “It’s different because it has different actors and has different chemistry and they sometimes bring radically different approaches to the roles. To have time away since it closed in August, to be in a different location, it’s shaking us loose from our ideas of what it needs to be. The other difference is the audience. We’ve had two previews and they embrace it from the moment they walk into the theatre. The L.A. audience is another new character for the production.”
Pierce’s future plans include juggling both his acting and directing careers. “I’m preparing to do It Shoulda Been You. We did it two to three years ago in New Jersey and it was a huge hit. We have been trying to bring it to Broadway and scheduling has been impossible. I’m putting all my energy into that. There are plans to bring Vanya to London in the fall and I’d go back to acting in it. That’s what I’m going to do.”