Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s spoof of Chekhov’s malaise and gravitas, is light fun, a comedy that encourages us to laugh at the ridiculous predicaments of two sisters and a brother, named by deceased, erudite parents for characters from the titanic Russian playwright’s oeuvre. It’s clever and frothy and wistful and preposterous in that special way that Durang has for uncovering the insane when it masquerades as wisdom. Yet Vanya and Sonia… somehow seems to be missing some of the panache that often makes Durang giddy and memorable. Durang shifts gears in the second act. After an hour or more of dismissing the key characters for their fatuousness, we’re supposed to take their suffering to heart. I’m not saying this can’t be done or that challenging our expectations can’t be entertaining. In Vanya and Sonia, though, it feels more like a whim than a strategy. Durang can’t decide whether the siblings are dinosaurs or revered elders of the tribe.
Vanya and Sonia are drifting away from lethargy with their morning coffee, watching herons explore the lake, as the play opens. They bemoan the lost years they’ve spent, caring for their ill and elderly parents. Cassandra, their housekeeper, pronounces dark portents, which, of course, they ignore. Not because they are remarkable, but simply because she provides no context for them. Masha arrives with Spike, a palpably handsome, yummy and robust, if shallow young man. Masha has arranged for the four of them to attend a glamorous, upscale costume party, where she will dress as Snow White, and Sonia and Vanya, as dwarves. Spike playing prince is the perfect salve to Masha’s vanity, blinding her to the impropriety of her costume. Masha is undoubtedly attractive and charismatic, but her days of playing the ingénue are behind her. Added to this quirky mix is Nina, a sweet-natured, winsome fan who is blissfully unaware of Masha’s petty, jealous machinations.
It’s intriguing to consider Chekhov’s themes in light of Durang’s satire, the supposedly trivial yearnings of the privileged class, who often, nonetheless behave with more grace and sophistication. While Chekhov feels more complex, here, we seem to be wrestling with Durang’s ambivalence towards his protagonists. Spike and Nina are clearly provided for a sense of contrast. Spike may be a buffoon but he’s relatively unpretentious and untroubled. Nina is warm and intelligent without being arrogant or neurotic. Towards the end of the second act, Vanya (the splendid and meticulous Bob Hess) delivers a monologue in which he expresses an aching nostalgia for the times when the world was technologically primitive but the human race was far more evolved. This is easily the most powerful moment in Vanya and Sonia, but it feels like pastiche. The subtext seems to be yearning to evince something more substantial. That being said, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is an amusing, delightful excursion, with many pleasurable moments. The cast is sublime, spontaneous and poised, and B.J. Cleveland’s direction imaginative and masterful.
Uptown Players presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, playing February 14th-March 9th, 2014. The Kalita Humphreys Theater. 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. www.uptownplayers.org