(Member: American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
Playwright Christopher Durang, who is noted for his absurdist ideas, has incorporated “pieces-parts” of three Chekov plays (THE CHERRY ORCHARD, UNCLE VANYA and THE WILD DUCK) and lots of Greek tragedy references into his hysterically funny VANYA AND SONYA AND MASHA AND SPIKE.
Does it help to know the sources of the bizarre plot takeoffs? It might, but it could even get in the way of just sitting and having a great time watching master actors take laugh inducing material, and create great comedy.
It’s Buck’s county, Pennsylvania. There is an attractive country house situated on the shore of a lovely lake, where a loon visits daily, and life seems serene until we observe 57-year old Vanya and his 52-year old spinster step-sister Sonia wallowing in their life regrets. They’ve led solitary lives centering on taking care of their now deceased parents. Now, the duo is left to realize that they both put aside any chance for personal happiness.
Vanya reads and seems to internally wonder about acting on his gay impulses. Sonia, a psychological hypochondriac, wallows in her being adopted, and stressing her fondest memory, that of her father calling her his “little artichoke” and that he “never molested me.” But, at least they have the pleasure of living in this lovely setting.
As in any good Chekov-invoked story, realistic conflict must rear its ugly head. The problem comes in the form of their self-absorbed, controlling, insecure sister Masha, who has become well known for her role in a series of films where she played a nymphomaniac pscyho-killer. Masha sweeps in with Spike, her studly boy toy, who has trouble keeping his clothes on. She announces she is having money problems and is going to sell the house.
Absurdity reigns as Masha commands that they are going to a neighbor’s swanky costume party. She is going as Snow White, Spike as Prince Charming, and the rest as her dwarfs. Spike skirts off in his very brief black briefs, finds a cute young girl (Nina) by the water who he brings home, much to Masha’s irritation. The cleaning lady (Cassandra), an amateur practitioner of voodoo, starts sticking pins in a Snow White dressed doll to create pain for Masha each time she thinks about selling the house and making predictions which amazingly come true.
Frustrated by the presence of Spike, a young man who represents attitudes of instant gratification, as well as the changing world, society’s loss of innocence, and his loss of hope, Vanya rants through a hysterical and breathtaking eight-minute tirade about television shows, postage stamps that don’t have to be licked, tweeting, instant gratification, and all the other ills of modern society.
Much against Marsha’s wishes, Sonia decides to go to the party as the wicked witch. Beautifully attired, and feigning a British accent, she attracts positive attention, and a potential suitor, while Masha’s outfit confounds. Of course, this is too much for the insecure Masha, and overblown angst ensues.
Spike reveals that he is sneaking off to the Caribbean with Masha’s assistant, and is sent packing, further enhancing the chaos.
How does it all end? Realization, hope, and maybe a happy ending, but with Durang writing a la Chekov, who knows, and who cares, since a good time is had by all.
The script is studded with philosophical and humorous lines, such as “If everyone took antidepressants, Chekov would have nothing to write about,” and a series of self-loathing pity parties, which only highlight the humor.
The cast is wonderful. Each character is clearly etched. David Hyde Pierce makes “Uncle” Vanya totally his. He is pathetic and endearing, dramatic and dynamic, and plays humor like a fine musician playing a well-tuned violin.
Kristin Nielson almost steals the show as the self-loathing Sonia. She knows how to play comedy. Her timing, facial expressions, and other nonverbal signals are endearing and laugh invoking.
Sigourney Weaver weaves a web of hyper-superficiality as the sister from hell. Her sparring matches with her siblings all hit the target. Her desire to hold on to her boy toy creates humorous acts of desperation.
Sensual Billy Magnussen (Spike), with his gym sculpted body and undulating abs, has the very difficult task of creating a Ken doll with such sincerity and lack of inhibition that he is perceived as real and not an overblown stereotype. He pulls off the feat with admirable ease.
Shalita Grant is delightfully endearing as the voodoo-spouting cleaning woman and Genevieve Angelson is properly charming as Nina, the waif Spike brings home from the beach.
Director Nicholas Martin wisely paces the action with an emphasis on the humor, yet leads his actors to stress the reality of the characters. David Korin’s realistic set creates the right moods, as does Emily Rebholz’s costumes and Justin Townsend’s lighting.
Capsule judgement: VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is a well performed, creatively written, laugh fest that should have a long Big Apple run and become a favorite vehicle for community theatres across the country.
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is in an open running run at the Golden Theatre , 252 W. 45th Street in New York.