Beware of Hootie-Pie

March 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Kristine Nielsen

You know the “editor” part of your consciousness has taken over far too much mental territory when after watching a hilarious and deeply enjoyable play, you make a few nitpicky remarks to your husband (that part’s okay), but then dream, not about the play, but about those remarks, how valid they are, etc.

Do you want to hear my nitpicky remarks? I didn’t think so. The play was “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang, who is tied with Tom Stoppard as my favorite living playwright. Stoppard is smarter, but Durang is the one I’d like as an escort to the party at the end of the world.

This isn’t Durang’s best play—not as dizzyingly absurd as The Marriage of Betty and Boo,” or as merciless as “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” It’s just (just!) a very solidly constructed farce with glorious riffs and sly theater references, a perpetual pleasure machine. Chekhovian neurotic gloom has been comic fodder forever, but Durang does it the way only someone who’s been through the looking glass of mood disorder can. If you’ve ever fallen into a duet of escalating self-pitying whine (the real pain version) with a close friend, then ended up laughing hysterically, you know what I mean.

David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Neilsen (Vanya and Sonia) play a brother and sister in their fifties who stayed home to care for their demanding professor/actor parents through their twilight years. “When Father had Alzheimers, he would take off all his clothes and go sit in the neighbors’ car and wait for them to find him.” For no reason in particular, they were unable to have any sort of life during their caretaking years or afterwards, although Sonia’s explanation— “I’m a wild turkey”—is perhaps sufficient.

Their narcissistic movie-star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) has supported them throughout, filming sexy serial killer movies in Morocco while they changed the parental diapers. When she comes home for a visit with Spike, her terrifyingly physical and clueless boytoy (Billy Magnussen) who’s also partial to taking off his clothes at every opportunity, it’s no surprise that she announces she’s planning to sell the house. There are, after all, cherry trees on the property, though no one’s quite sure how many. The very funny (if sometimes cringe-inducing) voodoo-doll-wielding black cleaning lady, Cassandra (Shalita Grant) warns against every danger, though her truths are often lost in a flood of dire and familiar pronouncements. “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”—not so helpful; “Beware of Hootie Pie”—yes, indeed. And then there’s Nina (you knew she’d show up), but she was more of a plot device than a character, although the ethereal Genevieve Angelson does a lovely job.

I won’t give away any more details, though it’s tempting. Go see the play, if you can. Kristine Neilsen is a gift from the gods. David Hyde-Pierce is merely brilliant. Sigourney Weaver’s not in their league but she’s a pleasure to watch, regardless, and Magnussen has a great future ahead of him if he doesn’t fall off the stage and break his neck.


Once some people were visiting Chekhov.

While they made remarks about his genius

the Master fidgeted.
 he said, “Do you like chocolates?”

They were astonished, and silent.

He repeated the question,

whereupon one lady plucked up her courage

and murmured shyly, “Yes.”

“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,

light glinting from his spectacles,

“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate

or the dark, bitter kind?”

The conversation became general

They spoke of cherry centers,

of almonds and Brazil nuts.

Losing their inhibitions

they interrupted one another.

For people may not know what they think

about politics in the Balkans,

or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion

about the flavor of shredded coconut.

Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,

and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,

was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door

and took their hands.

In the coach returning to Petersburg

they agreed that it had been a most

unusual conversation.

–Louis Simpson


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§ One Response to Beware of Hootie-Pie

  • Matt says:

    Very nice review and very well written! Just one thing I thought was a bit odd:
    Why was it relevant that the cleaning lady was black?
    I just saw a (different) production of the play, and the cleaning lady was white. Does her race really matter?


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