The title of the play — “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” — which sounds like it has to be a reference to Chekov, except for the Spike part, should give you a clue that you’re in for something slightly absurd. And that is exactly what’s in store when you see this farcical comedy by Christopher Durang which opened at the Phoenix Theatre on Sept. 19 and continues through Oct 20. Even if you have never seen a Chekov play (though it’s even funnier if you have), you will still enjoy Durang’s rib-tickling 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play. Examiner.com saw Thursday’s performance.
Set in a family home in Bucks County, Penn., the play is about Vanya (Charles Goad), and his adopted sister Sonia (Diane Kondrat), both single, who, after having taken care of ailing parents who have since died, are left feeling hopeless and unfulfilled and worry that their lives have passed them by. Constantly making prophesies about calamities that are just around the corner is their psychic cleaning lady, Cassandra (Dwanda Nickole Lampkin). One of her predictions occurs in the form of an unexpected visit from the sibs’ narcissistic, famous movie star sister Masha (Jen Johansen) who arrives with her pretty, yet dimwitted, boyfriend Spike (Pete Lindblom). Adding to the wacky mix is neighbor Nina (Ashley Dillard), who, because she dreams of being an actress herself, worships at the feet of Masha, who is her idol.
Given their names by academician parents who were theater fans, the three quarreling sibs, all of whom carry the baggage of their past as well as fears about their uncertain futures, are forced to confront not only their own insecurities but their complicated relationships with one another.
Central to the plot is the family home which was inherited from their parents by Vanya and Sonia but faces being sold by Masha who has been paying all the bills for its upkeep and supporting her brother and sister who have never really been independent.
Unlike Chekov’s characters that stay imprisoned in their gloom and angst, Durang gives his a reprieve. But not before all the hilarious fireworks that ensue before they achieve it.
“Vanya, et al.” producer and director Bryan Fonseca once again demonstrated his irrefutable talent for casting by choosing an ensemble comprised of actors that excel at playing against one another as well as demonstrating razor sharp timing and comic talent.
Consummate character actor Charles Goad transformed once again,this time as mild-mannered Vanya, who is given to being passive aggressive but capable of blowing his top and asserting himself if provoked. There was nothing more pleasurable to watch than this master at work when he delivers a blistering monologue that anyone who has ever been annoyed by those who “multitask” on smartphones will identify with.
Diane Kondrat, a Phoenix veteran and popular area actress who recently relocated to Portland, Ore., has returned triumphantly to play the role of neurotic, mood-swinging Sonia who is resigned to a life of gloomy monotony and depression. Like Vanya, Sonia also achieves some self-actualization which is manifested magnificently by Kondrat in an unforgettable scene during which her character asserts herself against her controlling sister, Masha. Invited to a costume party, Masha decides to go as Snow White and insists that her brother and sister go as dwarfs. Sonia instead spites Masha and upstages her in the process at the party by not only coming as a movie star but by dressing like the icon in a specific film role in which the actress herself plays a character. Even more impressive were Kondrat’s impressions of said characters in each layer represented.
Dwanda Nickole Lampkin was hysterical as Vania and Sonia’s strong willed, quirky and anything but submissive housekeeper and resident soothsayer Cassandra. One of Lampkin’s funniest moments took place when her character, who is presumably Jamaican, employed a certain magic ritual to demonstrate loyalty for her employers for whom she harbors deep affection.
Jen Johansen was flawless in her freewheeling portrayal of self-centered, self-absorbed, yet insecure Masha who longs to be serious actress but whose career is on the wane. Perfectly nonchalant, if not selfishly clueless about the needs of those around her, Johansen’s Masha was a stupendous comical send up of the quintessential demanding diva who can never get enough attention.
Pete Lindblom played the role of Masha’s vacuous, yet likeable, easy on the eyes, boy toy Spike, whose narcissism is only matched by that of his cougar girlfriend. Lindblom’s lack of inhibition, exhuberance and obvious unbridled relish at playing the role was a joy to watch.
Ashley Dillard was suitably effective and charming as the sweet, gullible and unsuspecting ingénue Nina who, through the kindness in her heart, manages to overlook the baser qualities of her role model and mentor Masha.
Like all of Durang’s plays, which are filled with social commentary, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is biting in its cynical criticism of the status quo. But it is also a very tender story about relationships and family that most will identify with. Coupled with the outrageous humor embodied in its script, this is one piece that is guaranteed to both entertain and uplift.
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