WHEN BROADWAY STARS ARE OUTSHONE

~ Posted by Isabel Lloyd, April 11th 2013

In the stalls of the Golden Theater in New York last week, as the lights came up and the enthusiastic clapping died away, the auditorium was filled with a susurration of urgent excitement. "Spike," people whispered to each other, as they flicked through their programmes to check out the cast list. "Spike."

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is a new comedy from Christopher Durang, the American playwright who is two parts Alan Ayckbourn to one part Brian Rix. It opened on Broadway in March, with two big-draw players in the cast: David Hyde Pierce, best known as Frasier’s neurasthenic brother Niles, and Sigourney Weaver, best known as an ass-kicker of aliens. When the first-night reviews came in, both were on the receiving end of almost uniform praise.

Yes, they do put on a good show. When I went, the audience didn’t seem to mind that this affectionate mash-up of Chekhov and modern farce has little to say apart from "Depression, heh? What’s the point?" They were too busy being apparently incapacitated by laughter as Hyde Pierce’s moony, precise Vanya clowned at the upper circle, or Weaver, playing Masha, threw herself petulantly onto sofas in a spirited pastiche of her own starry persona. All this the critics acknowledged.

Yet they virtually ignored something elseSpike. Most reviewers dealt with the performanceand its performer, a 27-year-old called Billy Magnussenin one sentence. Or even a single phrase: New York magazine damned faintly with the parenthesis "Spike (well-embodied by Billy Magnussen)". Spike is the studly toyboy of Weaver’s character, and on the page at least is not much more than a stereotypical dumb blond.

But as played by Magnussen, making his Broadway debut, he became the play’s comic heart, a giant puppy of enthusiasm and inappropriate sexual behaviour. The other actors couldn’t do much more than stand back and let him have his day as he flung off his clothes with joyful abandon, buried his face in bafflement in Weaver’s lap, tweaked Hyde Pierce’s nipples, and shoved his buttocks in the face of the front-row matrons. He sweated joie de vivre, and the audience—more instinctive than the criticslapped it up.

Isabel Lloyd is deputy editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Nobel nominees and satin sling-backs and The gift that stops giving

Photo: Billy Magnussen, Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce (Carol Rosegg)