Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Contemporary burlesque on Chekhovian motifs deftly brandishes its antic sweetness. 

The Broadway comedy hit, which won a Tony for Best Play in 2013, arrives in downtown L.A. in a production directed by David Hyde Pierce.

With its Tony Award for Best Play, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike presents the strongest comedy Broadway has to offer in a distinguished, sleekly professional production that makes the most of his frolicsome mash-up of melancholy and regret. A crazy-like-a-fox quilt of character and plot strands from The Sea Gull, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya set in today’s Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the playwright lives, the story unfolds over an action-packed 24 hours that punctuates the otherwise uninterrupted monotony of the lives of siblings Vanya (Mark Blum) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) when their movie star sister Masha (Christine Ebersole) arrives for a visit with her boy-toy, hunky aspiring actor Spike (David Hull).

Vanya and Sonia have remained in their childhood home and in a perpetual state of arrested development, taking care of their dying professor parents, whilst Masha has supported all of them at a great distance through her five-film series of sexy serial killer movies. All of them feel the futility of their lives dribbling away, in the classical Russian manner. Masha descends upon them to attend a posh costume party in the neighborhood as Walt Disney’s Snow White and wants everyone else to dress subordinate to her theme as dwarves or as Prince Charming (appropriately, Spike’s signal accomplishment has been almost to be cast in a recurring role on HBO’s Entourage 2). The cleaning lady, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), possessed of second sight and Apollo’s curse of never being believed, warns darkly of the family manse being sold. Meanwhile, wading in his underwear in the pond where the bruited blue herons never actually show up, Spike makes the acquaintance of the guileless ingenue Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager), who is simply thrilled to tag along with these “artistic types” to the ball.

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Everyone acts out in zany permutations on familiar themes and postures, as Durang sticks rigorously to the last of his conceit, spinning seemingly inexhaustible variations on the Chekhovian threads while reinterpreting them with a larkish sense of contemporary stage humor. While undeniably inventive and clever, more often the play feints at funny, settling instead for the clever and droll. Durang is not above forcing a gag in a Neil Simonish mode, though he is too savvy a dramatist to descend to one-liners. More concerning is his tendency to proffer nudging reflections of meaning rather than explore the meanings themselves. He can be a talented and capable magpie, not a parodist but neither entirely conjuring up a wholly original vision that supplants his copiously clever and deftly deployed borrowings.

As befits such a shrewd and smartly carpentered entertainment, the production, with original Vanya David Hyde Pierce building upon the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin, is nigh onto perfect, the sharply shaded caricatures nevertheless tethered to acute sentiment and a genuine angst, the tomfoolery sculpted with precision timing. These actors manifest an astonishing ability to play simultaneously deep within their roles while commenting ironically upon them, and that makes for richly satisfying comic complexity. In less polished hands, Durang’s play would seem slighter; as experienced here, they suggest layers of significance that upon any rigorous examination the text alone does not sustain.

Even so, Durang’s determination to accord his characters their respective arias strains this delicate dexterity with showboating, however impressive the histrionics. Vanya’s repetitive rant about the virtues of a past of shared experience, when letters had to be written and sent through the mail and stamps licked and attached, echoes his namesake’s climactic breakdown (minus the gun), while Sonia’s halting, hopeful acceptance of a date for dinner over the telephone flips the premise of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice to overtly heart-tugging ends.

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Nevertheless, this endearing show consistently amuses with an intelligence that may be too eager to flatter the audience yet earns its laughs with a rueful wisdom which Chekhov himself might appreciate. 

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, downtown L.A. (runs through Mar. 9, 2014)

Cast: Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole, David Hull, Shalita Grant, Liesel Allen Yeager

Director: David Hyde Pierce, based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin

Playwright: Christopher Durang

Set designer: David Korins

Lighting designer: David Weiner

Music and sound designer: Mark Bennett

Costume designer: Gabriel Berry