Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike goes on about a half hour too long, but the quality of the acting in this production carries the audience comfortably over the longueurs.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Presented by Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through July 31.
By Jim Kates
The most difficult kind of play to review may be one that has no pretentions. How can you take seriously a play that is really little more than play? Literate and allusive, and gratifyingly rich in character, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is such a tasty construction. Among other ingredients, the dramatist combines Disney, voodoo, and Aeschylus in a recipe that is ostensibly derived from Anton Chekhov.
And yet, after all, the cooked dish tastes more like Kaufman and Hart.
Vanya (Kraig Swartz) and his adopted sister Sonia (Dee Nelson) inhabit a house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Companionable and single, they feel stuck.
Here we have to pause and take account of that house, designed with brilliant invocation by James Morgan. Only three times in my life, and that long ago, have I been in Bucks County, and yet the set matched my memory even before the script expressed it. The set also suggests a landscape beyond the house, a world from which the glamorous sister Masha (Lisa Bostnar) emerges with her boy-toy Spike (Bobby Mittelstadt).
Masha thinks she has to sell the house, rolling up the rug from under her family’s feet. Sonia would like to have enough of a life to be in mourning for. Vanya has written a play. There is a bit of a cherry orchard, and a pond, but nobody dies, no distant chord twangs. A happy ending.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike goes on about a half hour too long, but the quality of the acting in this production carries the audience comfortably over the longueurs. Swartz and Nelson make a remarkable pair, balancing each other like a couple of electrons around an empty center.
Nelson conveys the stability, as well as the frustration, of a pent-in life without deepening frustration into despair. Of all the characters, Sonia expresses most fully the Chekhovian points of reference, not so in her preoccupations as in her carriage. Nelson convinces us that Sonia doesn’t have to be this way. Through the performance, Sonia changes and grows in self-knowledge and awareness of opportunity. Nelson makes us hope, and gives us hope for her Sonia.
Swartz cruises through the first act on his talent for making silence and stillness speak eloquently, the dramatic pause as comic. In spite of Spike’s physique (see below) he is the most physical of the actors on stage, and Swartz uses his physicality. He radiates much of the warmth of the play, the person you most want to hug, or call “Uncle.” And then, in the last scene, Swartz turns an overwritten and unnecessarily long rant into a manic aria.
But before that can happen, Masha sweeps in. And Bostnar sweeps in deliciously, an initially ebullient, auntie-mame-ish invasive force prepared to reset the scene around herself. There’s a Peterborough Players in-joke here, Bostnar having so well played Irina Arkadina in The Seagull a couple of years back. Durang has written Masha to be a riff on Chekhov’s insecure, aging actress, and Bostnar’s performance echoes her earlier turn in its self-absorption and sympathy. By the end of the second act, sympathy has won out, and she seems to grow younger as the play goes on.
Mittelstadt has the most thankless acting job as the most un-Chekhovian Spike, more of a plot device-cum-prop than a character. Spike’s physical attributes are the whole point of his presence, and Mittelstadt certainly makes the most of these with a sometimes unsettling humanity.
Nina, the would-be ingenue who has also wandered out of The Seagull into the Pennsylvania household, is also a difficult role because of its lack of definition. Eleanor Pearson makes her professional theater debut here. If only the script had given her part the flamboyance demanded of Megan Robinson as Cassandra, the cleaning-lady prophetess and voodoo adept, and if only Robinson had played her own role less straight, and more flamboyantly.
Gus Kaikkonen’s direction, always competent, is a little cautious here, relying on his confidence in the talents of a well known cast. This production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike exhibits all the strengths of a sure-footed repertory company with a dash of new blood, producing a light-hearted but not superficial entertainment.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.