Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike" marks Genevieve Angelson's first professional job in the theater. In retrospect, her landing an assignment in a play with Chekhovian overtones seems almost foreordained. "I got the callback for the part on my nameday," she told me, the nameday in traditional Orthodox Russia having significance eclipsing that of the birthday. As Angelson and I sat outside the cast's dressing rooms near a bank of vending machines, just before a Saturday matinee, she gave further evidence of her rightness for the role.
"I played Nina and Irina at NYU," she said, referring to the Chekhov roles she did while a graduate student in downtown Manhattan's largest university: she received her MFA in acting this past May. "But in that program we were always working on so many things at once, so I never got the chance to really live with those characters." She added: "With this Nina" - yes, that is her character's name in the Durang - "I have a chance to live with the character for six months. That's a wonderful opportunity." Chekhov's Nina comes from "The Seagull," and Angelson said that in some ways Durang's piece is "as if 'The Seagull' ended after Act III not after Act IV." (I won't unpack that remark - in case you haven't yet seen "Vanya and Sonya.")
Durang's Nina, Angelson said, dreams of being a performer. "She's a show person, and like a lot of show people she's felt lonely with her family. When she is introduced to Vanya and Masha, all of a sudden she has met her familiars."
Nina's high-school dreams are not entirely concordant with those of Angelson's as a teenager. She went to the all-girl Brearley School, on Manhattan's Upper East Side (her castmate Sigourney Weaver also attended that academy, albeit briefly). Although she acted in high school, she left that calling behind as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, where she was a film-studies major. "I was exploring my cinephile side. I watched two movies a day for four years." Soon thereafter, however, she realized that she didn't want to be a movie director or a cinema scholar. "I wanted to be more of an emotional, psychological interpreter."
With Durang's "Vanya," Angelson is having a chance to observe some of the best interpreters in the business, and she's grateful. "I've learned so much from everyone in the cast," she said. She had praise for all the actors, as well as for Durang and for the director, Nicholas Martin, but something she said about her colleague Kristine Nielsen struck me as especially apt. "In Kristine I see someone who can stay to truthful in performance during moments that on the page seem so insane. She is always such an observant, listening actor."
As for her own assignment, Angelson said, "I go to bed at night thinking about Nina, and wake up thinking about her. I never stop thinking about the previous performance and what just happened."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.