San Diego, CA---If it’s farce you are looking for, head down to the Old Globe where Christopher Durang’s Tony Award (Best Play) winning farce “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is now being produced in a San Diego Premiere Production on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage through June 22nd. It's a slam-dunk.
Familiar with Chekhov? No? Well you don’t have to be according to Durang. If you’re a stickler for detail, it will help because the folks in ‘Vanya and Sonia’ all have names based on Chekhov’s characters and well… take on familiar personalities, not necessarily their names sakes but ‘a blend’ of his characters from Three Sisters, The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard. You pick.
We know this right off the bat from Vanya (Martin Moran) who manages to tell us that both parents were professors and ‘active in community theatre’. (That’s in case you had no idea about the names) “Having professors for parents had its drawbacks”. “What 7 year old child knows who wrote The Imaginary Invalid? Father became so enraged when I said Neil Simon. I mean, I was only 7”. (Hint: French playwright Molière)
As directed by Jessica Stone after the recent death of Globe Associate Nicholas Martin who took it to New York’s Lincoln Center in association with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, the show is, according to those in the know been recreated in Martin’s image. “It is just as funny and just as touching”.
The setting is a peaceful country farmhouse situated in Bucks County, PA. with a nearby pond that is the central lookout place for the clinically depressed and neurotic Sonia (Marcia deBonis) and the much-repressed Vanya’s morning connection. They settle there in their morning room to stare out, drink their coffee and possibly catch sight of the blue heron that frequents the pond.
Since their parents, whom they dedicated their adult lives to looking after, died things are rather dull (the operative word) at the old farmhouse. On this morning coffee and how much milk is in it is the topic of conversation. “I have two pleasant moments every day in my effing life, and one of them is bringing you coffee” laments Sonia. This after Vanya said he liked the cup he mixed for himself better. When he suggests that she move from the morning room to another she shares that she is in constant mourning…always keeping her sadness to herself. He: “I hope you are not going to make Chekhov references all day”.
As we move along things pick up and substantially when their housekeeper Cassandra (a hoot and a howl Haneefah Wood) comes on to the scene with musings of ‘The Ides of March’ even though it’s late August. Better still ‘Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts’ or better yet, “Beware of the middle of the month”. She confesses she sees visions…shadows. “It may be my curse to see these shadows and my duty to warn you”. In truth, she is the best thing that happens in Durang’s play. Well, that’s if you don’t count Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks) flexing his pecs in his skivvies. More on that later.
At the crux of ‘Vanya and Sonia’ is the not so welcomed homecoming of their once famous actress and control freak sister Masha (Candy Buckley). She is planning on attending a costume party one of their wealthy neighbors is throwing. She has her Snow White costume all set and insists her siblings dress as the Dwarfs. Sonia counters by being The Evil Queen a la Maggie Smith. And so it goes. And Spike, well he’s Prince Charming!
Over the years Masha supported her siblings in order for them to take care of their ailing parents. She also kept the farmhouse and all its accouterment paid for. Now with her fame fading, money becomes a big issue. Her plans to sell then property does not sit right with any of the occupants of the house including Cassandra who, with the help of a Voodoo Doll tries to curb Masha’s appetite for a quick sale.
Masha, who has been married five times, is now shtupping a new plaything in the form of Spike who has to be young enough to be her son. Spike’s claim to fame is that he is an also ran. He nearly landed a part in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2. The fact that he’s a bit slow, matters not to Vanya as it’s more of a distraction to him every time Spike strips down to show off his muscular body than it is for him to be flirting with their next door neighbor Nina (Allison Layman).
All is fair play in Act II when Sonia and Vanya find a voice, each having their own epiphany. Sonia gets a call back from one of the party guest she met, but can’t remember who, the night before. When he asks her to dinner she vacillates almost going into her lack of confidence Sonia mode but finally mustering the nerve to dine with him to the delight of the opening night crowd. DeBonis shines in this scene as she does with every other depressed word she utters. She’s a perfect fit as Sonia.
Vanya goes off on…well everything from climate control to licking stamps to cell phones, to Davy Crockett and coonskin hats, to the Lucy Show to video games and typewriters. It’s a ten or so minute rant; it’s a bit over done, but done well by the talented Moran.
As for Masha, she’s another case. Ever affected to a fault, she nearly collapses from her over enthusiasm espousing her talents and woes. “I’m having a hard time. Do you mind? I’m getting older, my five marriages didn’t work out…. And I just feel old and vulnerable”. And in a moment just too funny for words, she she bemoans to Sonia that the reason she didn’t cry at their parent s funeral was because “I hide my feelings”. Sonia, “Nonsense, you parade your feelings”….”It’s exhausting being around you”. Buckley’s performance while dramatic and animated is shrill and over the top; arms flailing, fingers in hair and finally collapsing on the sofa. Indeed it is exhausting.
From this exchange both Sonia and Masha have a go at it. Vanya gets involved, Spike leaves, Nina is happy with her newly found acting abilities (she plays a molecule) and I want to say they all lived happily ever after, but I doubt it. It is Chekhovian after all!
David Korins set straight from the LA production is a welcome sight that brings with it a peaceful aura not found in these siblings. Gabriel Berry’s costumes, Mark Bennett’s original music and sound design and David Weiner’s lighting are all on the mark.
Listen carefully. Laugh lines seem to drown out blocks of dialogue coming right after them. For a good laugh or two it’s worth a try.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 22nd
Organization: The Old Globe
Production Type: Farce
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage