David Hyde Pierce plays Vanya in Christopher Durang's new play, in a cast that also features Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen, but early in my interview with Pierce the other day he made a crucial observation. "This is not a version of Uncle Vanya," he said. "It contains characters and themes and quirks from most of Chekhov's plays, but they have been distilled by Durang. It is inspired by Chekhov, but it is absolutely and uniquely and wonderfully Chris's work."
Pierce himself, who is a Tony-winning actor for the musical Curtains and a multiple-Emmy winner for his brilliance as Niles Crane on "Frasier," has roots in both the Russian and in the world of the writer of his current assignment.
"I did a production of The Seagull at the Guthrie. And in 1988 I did Peter Brooks' production of The Cherry Orchard, which was seen at BAM and then in the Soviet Union. It was a wonderful group of actors - Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt among them. It was also a very international cast, including Erland Josephson, the great Bergman actor." Pierce added: "The production was bold in that it stripped away almost everything we associate with Chekhov: Instead of a samovar-laden, birch-tree-heavy work it was all done on oriental carpets. Brook was trying to let the play speak for itself."
Pierce's connection to Durang stretches back thirty years, to his first big job after receiving his undergraduate degree from Yale. "I played a waiter, inBeyond Therapy. I went from being a temp worker at a law firm and selling ties at Bloomingdale's at Christmas to being on Broadway." The cast included John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. Pierce points out: "Ironically, Sigourney had done the original production off-Broadway but wasn't able to do it on Broadway."
How do all the long-standing relationships between the artists of the new LCT play - Durang and Weaver first worked together 40 years ago, Durang and Nielsen met 25 years ago, during an LCT production of Ubu - inform the world of Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike "A play like this," Pierce responded, "benefits from the richness of the relationships onstage. Our long associations and intimate knowledge of each other are an important part of the experience of doing the play."
Pierce continued: "You add to that the fact that we have three other actors" - Genevieve Angelson, Billy Magnussen, Shalita Grant - "whose connections to Chris are much newer. And they are playing characters in the play who have less history with Vanya and Masha and Sonya. That adds to the freshness."
Freshness is essential if the world of the play is to engage the audience, Pierce said. "That's true not just for our play but for a Chekhov play as well," he explained. "It's easy to see a bad production of Chekhov - like watching paint dry. You need to locate the conflicts and find ways for and audience to identify with people. Chris has found delightful ways to dramatize the conflicts in his play."
Pierce's insights into making a production come alive spring not only from his experience as an actor but from his more recent work as a director. This past summer, he directed The Importance of Being Earnest at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and last season he staged a new musical calledIt Shoulda Been You at the George Street Playhouse. Pierce said there is work afoot - the cast included Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris - toward bringing the show to Broadway next fall.
Also heading for life next fall: a production of a new musical, The Landing, at the Vineyard in New York. Pierce acted in the workshop recently; the show is written by John Kander and Greg Pierce, who is David Hyde Pierce's nephew and whose play, Slowgirl, opened LCT's Claire Tow space earlier this year.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.