Christopher Durang, the author of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," and Nicholas Martin, its director, have a history. It may not be a history as extensive as that between Durang and two of the play's actors: Sigourney Weaver and Durang became soulmates in sensibility after meeting 40 years ago at Yale, and Kristine Nielsen for Durang is a kind of muse.
But Martin first worked with Durang on the premiere of "Betty's Summer Vacation," off-Broadway, in 1999, and subsequently directed the playwright as performer in his "Laughing Wild," at the Huntington in Boston, where for 8 years Martin was artistic director, and then the off-Broadway premiere three years ago of Durang's "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them."
"I had a profound appreciation of Christopher's work long before we ever met," Martin told me the other day, after "Vanya" had begun performances at the McCarter in Princeton, where the production is a hot ticket and will run through October 14. (It starts at LCT's Mitzi E. Newhouse on October 25.) "The first play I did when I was teaching at Bennington was "The Marriage of Bette and Boo." Chris's combination of humor and savagery really spoke to me." Martin added: "With the new play, the savagery is still intact but I think he now sees some light. And there's no question that the work has deepened."
Martin, who later this season will direct Robert Sean Leonard in "Pygmalion," at San Diego's Old Globe, said that "Chris's sensibility is very real to me. You always have to keep that real-ness in mind. The mistake some people make when doing his plays is to turn them into cartoons, but when you do that you sacrifice the entire evening."
Martin said that when casting Durang's plays "you have to be especially careful to choose actors who don't confine their interpretations to cartoonishness." Equally important, the director continued, is to work with people who understand that, even though Durang sometimes touches on political or social issues, he is not writing polemic. "His work is not high-handed," Martin explained. "And we're so fortunate with 'Vanya' to have six actors who understand just what Chris is aiming for."
Durang's new play may be set in the present, in a lovely farm house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but in title and mood and character names the drama is suffused with a Russian playwright of a century ago: Anton Chekhov. How does a director handle this relationship?
"It's true that the play is Chekhov by way of Durang," Martin answered. "But you don't really need to know anything about Chekhov to appreciate and enjoy this evening." He added: "You can't direct the play as if it actually IS Chekhov. At the same time, there are moments in the play where you do have to take a breath and just go Chekhov."
Still, the director explained, Durang and Chekhov have differences of approach to similar themes. "For example, in Chris's play, Vanya has a big speech toward the end that is a real cry of rage. At a similar moment, a Chekhov character might have three lines. Both approaches are powerful."
Like Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," Durang addresses the topics of age and loss and wasted lives. But, Martin said, Durang isn't afraid to bring his characters together as a family. "And he does it in a way that Chekhov's characters deserve but rarely get."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.