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Actors, director find the funny in Hartford Stage 'Vanya, Sonia, Masha & Spike'

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Rehearsals for a play are frequently a time fraught with anticipation, nervousness, anxiety, tempers, and egos. But from the cast members and director now preparing for the Hartford Stage production of Christopher Durang’s Tony-Award winning comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which begins previews on May 22, you are more apt to hear such reports as “we’re having a good time” or “this play is like a big fat gift has been dropped in our laps.”

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The latter quote comes from the New York-based actress Leslie Hendrix, perhaps best known as the no-nonsense seen-it-all medical examiner Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers on such long-running shows as “Law and Order” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” In her first Hartford Stage appearance since “The Cover of Life” some 20 years ago, she is playing Masha, a successful, glamorous, flamboyant movie star who returns to her family homestead in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with her boy-toy of the moment, the Spike of the title, in tow.

She, along with her Spike, the New York television actor (or should I say hunk?), David Gregory (“One Life to Live” and “Deception), and the play’s director, Hartford Stage’s Associate Artistic Director, Maxwell Williams, sat down recently to discuss their preparation process for the work, in which they shared a consistent consensus. Gregory, for example, immediately agreedartfrodH with Hendrix’s assessment. “If this experience should happen to end tomorrow,” he says, “I’ve had such a wonderful time, it would have all been worthwhile.”

Even their director easily assented. “David (Gregory) and I find ourselves giggling a lot as we go through the discovery phase of the rehearsal project,” he indicates. “I’ve recently been doing more serious fare, but I love doing comedies.” Fortunately, at Hartford Stage, he adds, he’s been able to do more comedies, particularly farces. “While it is enjoyable to do a show that is simply funny,” he continues, “and I certainly don’t want to diminish the purpose of a farce, I like to look for material that has more depth. That’s what I like about ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.’ It makes you laugh, but the good news is that it opens you up to something that is quite touching and beautiful.”

Indeed, “Vanya and Sonia, etc.” was one of the funniest shows on Broadway last season, justifiably deserving of its Tony win as Best Play, but it also offered a great deal of depth in its tale of three adult siblings (all named after Chekhov characters by their theater-loving parents) in various stages of emotional development who are forced to grapple with their situations and each other when Masha arrives from Hollywood with a disturbing announcement that will impact them all. Being a Christopher Durang work, however, the comedy reigns supreme and in fact proceeds seamlessly from the characters’ own personalities and trepidations. Hartford Stage was an early champion of Durang, who initially attracted attention as an aspiring actor-playwright at the Yale School of Drama, having staged his “A History of the America Film” at its original location on Kinsley Street in the late 1970’s.

Williams describes the work as “a farce intermingled with sadness,” explaining that in his view Durang has matured as a writer. The veteran playwright’s early plays, he states, are so clever and outraged that they can be alienating. Compared to those works, this play, he finds, “is less strident, less angry, more positive and much simpler in a human kind of way.”

Despite her role as the sometime dour yet humorously caustic M.E. on television, Hendrix sees herself as primarily a comic actress. “I live for comedy,” she says, “and Masha is my favorite type of role to play. She’s essentially a form of a train wreck, supremely self-involved, massively entitled who absorbs all of the air in the room. She’s me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me all the time. She’s the person I love to play but in real life, I’d run from the room away from her at top speed.”

For Gregory, who somehow managed to take off his shirt nearly every day on his soap opera and actually quite frequently on his evening mystery-drama series as well, this play represents an opportunity to, in his words, “play my own age and be funny.” His previous stage work in college veered more toward the serious, such as Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. This Hartford engagement will also allow him to once again model his toned torso, this time for a live audience. “I haven’t been on stage for six years,” the actor reveals, citing his busy TV schedule, “but this is a muscle that I am excited to call on again.” There’s little doubt that audiences will be pleased with all of the muscles that Gregory will need to call upon during the show’s five week run.

Although it received rave reviews and won numerous awards, Williams does not feel beholden to replicate the original New York production. “We know it’s a good play,” he says, but he does not feel that the New York production was necessarily a definitive version. “Why else would over 70 theater companies across the country be planning to stage this work over the next year and a half?” he asks. He even cites that fact that the original New York Vanya, David Hyde Pierce, recently staged his version of the play in Los Angeles with different cast members.

Williams had not worked with any of his cast members prior to auditioning them for “Vanya,” including Mark Nelson, who plays Vanya, and Caryn West who plays the adopted sister Sonia, but he knew of their work and thought that they would bring something individual to their roles. “When these particular people came together, all cut from a different cloth,” Williams indicated, “the dynamic became very clear and they became an ensemble with each retaining a distinct identity.”

As an example, Gregory discusses his take on his character Spike. “I see him as a man-child,” he relates, “but you have to find the child in yourself to make it work. If you do an impersonation of how the character has been played before, you are not doing it justice. Instead, I see a little boy in Spike who nonetheless has a relationship with Masha that is functional and real.”

Williams and his two cast members assure audiences that a knowledge of Chekhov is absolutely not required to fully enjoy the play, even though there are a few occasional references to the Russian author’s work, which will be readily apparent to most theatergoers, such as the character of the neighbor girl, Nina, who is interested in playing a part in an unpublished play that Vanya wrote. His description of that work, Williams said, could probably suffice for a description of the actual Durang play: “It’s much more of a touching comedy about a family than a wannabe ‘Cherry Orchard.’”

Of course, it wouldn’t be Durang if there weren’t just a few moments of delicious nonsense thrown into the mix. “Being able to put on a Snow White costume makes me feel so great and so ridiculous at the same time,” Hendrix relates about one of Durang’s more winning and preposterous plot twists. “Imagine it: a middle-aged woman all dressed up as Snow White.”

As the three get ready to return to rehearsal, they reiterate how much they are really enjoying this process. Both Hendrix ad Gregory admit that ever since they saw the original production in New York last year, they have sought out an opportunity to play their parts. “It’s like I’m a kid getting to play a bigger kid on stage,” Gregory says. “I’m having the time of my laugh. And when I see Maxwell laughing, which is often, that makes us all know that we are doing a good job.”

And Williams admits that he too is “I’m enjoying myself through the rehearsal process. Sometimes I think it’s silly that I have this job that at which I’m having such a good time.” It is great, he adds, “to help shape something you feel is very good and that you feel that the audience will come on board as well.”

Performances of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” begin on Thursday, May 22, with an official opening night of Friday, May 30, and run through June 22nd. The theater cautions that the play is appropriate for audiences aged 18 years and above. For tickets and information, call the Hartford Stage box office at 860.527.5151 or visit the website at www.hartfordstage.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner and/or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article near the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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