For the record, Sigourney Weaver has never done Chekhov. "It seems remarkable, I know," she told me the other day. "With all my training," she continued, alluding in part to her time at the Yale School of Drama, where she met Christopher Durang forty years ago, "you would think that I would have done one of Chekhov's plays. But I did enough of the classics early on to realize that what I really loved was new plays. New work has been much more important to me."
Echoes of the master, however, have wafted throughout her major film career in one sense. Referring to the director of her 1997 movie, "The Ice Storm," she said, "I used to joke with Ang Lee that I played a Chekhov character in that one." The story takes place in New Canaan, Connecticut, and her character was called Janey Carver, who is having an extramarital affair. "It was suburban Chekhov. But angst is timeless."
It is not quite accurate to say that Weaver's current assignment, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," is also in-the-country Chekhov. "It is inspired by his characters," she said, "but it is every bit a Durang play." She added: "It's a flowering of some of his themes - people unable to get along, and their feeling that there are terrible things happening in the world and they are helpless to do anything about them."
But the play, Weaver continued, is "the old Chris merged with the new Chris. All of us who have worked with him feel that this play has a different energy than the others. It is not as angry even though it is still filled with pain and longing."
Listening to Weaver speak of her rich relationship with Durang, it occurs to me that there should be a definitive study of it. The theater historian who assumes that task will benefit from the fact that the pair have been writing it all along. Weaver told me, for instance, that Durang said he partly based Masha, whom she portrays in the current piece, on an article/photo shoot the two did for Esquire in the mid-1980s. "Ghostbusters" had just come out, and Weaver, who had become famous a few years before with the sci-fi classic "Alien," had rocketed at warp speed to another stage of stardom.
The Esquire back-and-forth, titled "Naked Lunch," lampooned such celebrity. It takes place at the Russian Tea Room, New York's midday show-biz canteen at that time, abuzz with agents and their high-profile clients. Here's a sample of the mock Durang/Weaver banter:
C.D: Tell me, how did you get the leading role in "Alien"?
S.W: I slept with the director.
C.D: And "Eyewitness"?
S.W: I slept with the director and the writer and the crew.
C.D: And "The Year of Living Dangerously"?
S.W: I slept with the Australian consulate.
The true target of this comic exercise is the cult of glamour. "When Chris says that my role right now is related to that article," Weaver said, "I think what he means is that both the Sigourney of that piece and my Masha love all the glitz."
She continued: "It's been very important to Masha to maintain illusions. It's better not to pay attention to what's really been going on in her family. She is able to sustain that pose - until she can't. She is in some way a sincere person, even though she's deluded. It's quite challenging to play her, because the temptation is to make her less smart than you are. But you can't do that. If you do, she loses her eventual humanity."
Unlike Masha, Weaver said that fame has not been the primary satisfaction of her career. "Onstage, what's been gratifying has been the opportunity to do new work. And in the movies, what's meant the most to be has been the opportunity to work with so many great directors." That list includes Mike Nichols, on "Working Girl," and Roman Polanski, on "Death and the Maiden," and James Cameron, whose "Avatar" had the kind of success that seems to be spawning not just a sequel but two prequels.
"I don't know the exact state of all those 'Avatar' scripts," Weaver said, although she will undoubtedly apply a focused eye on them if they arrive in her in-box. "I was an English major, and through the years that has helped me recognize a strong script - one that can't be killed by the filmmaking process."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.