While worth a look for its inspired performances, this Huntington Theatre Company production does not give us Christopher Durang at his madcap best.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang. Directed by Jessica Stone (based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin). Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, Boston, MA through Feb. 1.
By Terry Byrne
Christopher Durang’s comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike trades on a combination of middle-aged angst and broad humor, spiced with references to Anton Chekhov and any number of ‘50s pop culture icons. The Huntington Theatre Company ensemble, led by the extraordinary Candy Buckley and a wonderful Marcia DeBonis, hit all the right notes and provide an evening full of laughs. But it’s hard not to feel as if we’ve just consumed a meal with absolutely no nutritional value. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a lighthearted comedy that’s not trying to be anything more, but by tapping into Chekhov, Durang sets up expectations for something with more theatrical meat on its bones.
The play opens on the porch of a lovely home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — elegantly realized by designer David Kornis – where Vanya (Martin Moran) and his sister Sonia (DeBonis) are pondering their monotonous existence. They are, to paraphrase Durang who paraphrases Chekhov, “in mourning for their lives,” but instead of wearing black, as Chekhov’s character does, they are sitting around in their pajamas. Mired in self-pity and resentment, they sip their coffee, bicker and shuffle around the house, their routine interrupted only by the appearance of Cassandra (Haneefah Wood), a house cleaner who delivers prophecies of doom as she dusts.
The arrival of their sister Masha (Buckley) and her young lover Spike (a hunky Tyler Lansing Weaks), creates the pivot point for the plot. Masha has become an actress who achieved fame with a series of “Sexy Killer” films even though she would love to play the role of Masha in The Three Sisters (although Durang has written her character to parallel the self-absorbed Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull). Buckley delivers a diva whose every vocal inflection and body movement suggests a woman with a larger-than-life personality. This is a female who is accustomed to sucking up all the attention in every room she enters. When Spike meets the naïve Nina (Allison Layman) next door, Masha’s competitive streak goes into overdrive.
But when Masha allows her siblings, and Nina, to accompany her to a costume party – albeit dressed as dwarves while she portrays Snow White and Spike is her Prince – the already thin plot starts to fray even as During’s sight gags multiply. Sonia’s defiance of her bossy sister becomes the high point of the show as Sonia decides to play the Evil Queen — but as Maggie Smith in California Suite would play the Evil Queen. DeBonis not only has her Maggie Smith impersonation down pat, but the way she fusses with a panel of her dress is an absolute joy to watch. DeBonis fluffs it and pats it with the joy of a little girl in her first party dress. This delightful comic business also neatly makes a dramatic point — playing the role of someone else gives Sonia a surprising amount of self-confidence.
Even if you don’t understand any of the play’s references to Chekhov, it will still make you giggle to hear Masha plaintively whine “I am a wild turkey” and Masha complain that at the costume party people mistook her for Norma Desmond or a Hummel figurine.
These elements, plus the energetic direction of Jessica Stone (whose efforts are based on the work of the original Broadway director, the late Nicholas Martin), provide the required number of belly laughs. At one point, even a scene change becomes an opportunity for a little silent comedy as Cassandra and Spike move furniture around without ever breaking character.
Still, Durang strains to sustain his joke through two acts and, because his characters have been steeped in Chekhov’s dark humor, his neatly wrapped ending feels unearned and unsatisfying. While no one can stretch a plot to its zany extremes the way Durang can, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike doesn’t have the inspired madness of Betty’s Summer Vacation or Baby with the Bathwater. While worth a look for the inspired performances, this is not Durang at his madcap best.
Terry Byrne has been writing about the arts for nearly two decades. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.