Anton Chekhov, it is said, viewed his plays as comedies. But I really can’t recall ever LMAO-ing over “The Cherry Orchard” or “The Seagull.” That, however, is not the case with Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired, Tony Award-winning comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which currently has Hartford Stage audiences, if not ROFL-ing, at least has them giddy with delight in their seat
“Vanya and Sonia, et. al.” represents further growth for the Yale Drama School graduate, whose early plays were wild, anarchic farces glazed with an acute intelligence, including “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” “A History of the American Film,” and “Beyond Therapy,” or clever parodies such as “The Idiots Karamazov” and “For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls,” or recent works that featured more developed characters dealing with contemporary issues, in such works as “Betty’s Summer Vacation” and “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.”
In many ways, “Vanya and Sonia, etc.” is a perfect example of a Durang play. It has plenty of physical humor and sight jokes, it is chock-a-block full of sarcastic one-liners, it effectively captures the zeitgeist of the country at the current moment, it abounds with juicy literary references both contemporary and classic, and it has its own share of characters who can be, at times, slightly off the wall. But what differentiates this play from most of his previous ones is the great warmth and heart at its center.
All of this is sublimely evident in Maxwell Williams’ lively production which plays through Sunday, June 22 at the downtown Hartford venue. He has assembled a great cast who go to town with each of their characters, a carefully calibrated mix of caricature and exaggeration that nonetheless discovers and honors the humanity at each one’s core. While they may all be identifiable types with some more off-center than others, they all turn out to be people with whom you are delighted to be spending time.
Durang sets the play in Bucks County, PA, where he actually lives, in a rambling house that has been exquisitely designed by Jeff Cowie to capture the feel of its great rooms and high ceilings and suggest the paths and ponds that surround the home. Here dwell in Chekhovian angst a brother and sister, Vanya and Sonia, who have remained single after caring for their elderly Alzheimer afflicted parents for many years. Their names resulted from their parents being college professors and community theater enthusiasts, which was also responsible for the name of their globe-trotting, long-absent movie star sister, Masha, who unexpectedly arrives one weekend with her much-younger, boy-toy lover, Spike, in tow.
In a slight nod to Chekhov, we learn that Masha plans to sell the house, which would leave her siblings homeless and forced to get jobs. There’s also a costume party to attend, just up the road at the old Dorothy Parker house, for which Masha has brought a Snow White costume for herself and dwarf outfits for the others. A young aspiring actress, cheekily named Nina, drops by from next door, and will, a la The Seagull, perform in a play written by one of the characters. At the same time, the family housekeeper, a Caribbean Cassandra, spouts off warnings and predictions in hilarious speeches that combine Greek tragedy with American pop culture. Durang packs so much into his play that I’ve barely scratched the surface of all that occurs, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares?
All six members of the ensemble are pitch-perfect, with Durang providing each with special moments to shine. The always-reliable Mark Nelson demonstrates marvelous depth as the gay but quiet Vanya, who feels he has sacrificed his aspirations to remain a caregiver, but who reveals a pent-up nostalgia for simpler times in a deliciously out-of-control monologue that is truly one of the most hysterical and rewarding scenes of the play. Nelson’s Vanya holds a gentle dignity that serves the character well as he struggles to maintain peace between his sisters and in a touching moment when he delights in allowing Nina to call him “Uncle Vanya.”
Caryn West, an actress who is new to me, is heart-breakingly stunning as the sad, frustrated Sonia, who in Durang’s crisp, savage dialogue delivers some of the funniest and honest descriptions of despair and loneliness one may ever encounter on a stage. As an adopted sister, she may feel isolated, but the sly West brings the audience along on her character’s transition into a wickedly modern riff on a Maggie Smith discovering her “prime.” She also gets to transition, with great assistance from costume designer Tricia Barsamian, from Sonia’s casual, laid-back wardrobe into a shimmering green gown complete with sequins. The actress also has the audience hanging on every word in a telephone call that Sonia receives, for which we only hear one side. The audible disappointment from some audience members at a certain point in the conversation indicates how much West has enabled us to invest into her character.
Leslie Hendrix, nearly unrecognizable from her role as the grittily acerbic medical examiner in all three versions of “Law and Order,” is a genuine force of nature as Masha, the cluelessly self-absorbed celebrity who prances around the house using grand gestures and oversize language while trying to hide her insecurities and fears. Of course, this is only made more absurd once she dons the Snow White outfit, all the paradoxes of which Hendrix captures perfectly.
Daytime soap hunk David Gregory (“One Life to Live”) plays Spike not so much as dim, but as someone so taken in by his looks, his abs, and his career (not to mention some genuine affection for Masha, enough to play frequent go-fer) that he really hasn’t the time to be concerned or aware of anything else. In fact there’s an element in his performance that suggests a naivety about just what kind of a profession he had decided to pursue. Gregory particularly funny demonstrating Spike’s playful use of his frequently shirtless and occasionally pantless body to both impress and intimidate, as well as to celebrate his good fortune.
The wonderful Stacey Sargeant has some great moments as the amusingly portentous housekeeper Cassandra, whose warnings go unheeded yet have a habit of coming true. She’s always a welcome presence whether she’s chanting curses, praying to any variety of multi-cultural gods or showing Vanya how to work a voodoo doll. Andrea Lynn Green is sweet and believable as the theatrically astute and ambitious neighbor whose gratitude seems absolutely genuine as she gets to know the members of this rather zany yet emotionally relatable household.
All of Barsamian’s costumes are well-done, from her casual outfits to her takes on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as in her selection of items for Spike to wear, or in several cases, what to jump out of fairly frequently. John Lasister’s lighting very ably captures the mood as the day progresses, from a sparkling morning to the middle of the night.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a truly modern comedy that genuinely entertains and rewards through non-stop laughter and the occasional tear, with an intelligence that respects both its characters and its audience. It is a play full of wit, wonder and worth, that shows a genius comedic playwright at the top of his powers. It is full of heart, love and hilarity, making this weekend along the Delaware a memorable journey.
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