Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by Stu Brown

In the end, after all the unresolved slights, childish arguments, and envy-spawned fights, there is always the bedrock of one’s family to provide support and solace. That’s the real message from Christopher Durang’s wildly entertaining, Chekhovian inflected play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, playing at Hartford Stage through June 22nd.

Vanya and Sonia, brother and sister with a love-hate relationship, reside in their deceased parents’ Bucks County, PA home. With no visible means of income they exist, relying on their wealthy movie star sister, Masha, for support and the home’s upkeep. As the two suffer and bicker, and their housekeeper, Cassandra, prophesizes great tragedy, they are descended upon by Masha and her boy-toy, Spike. Seeking temporary respite from her glamorous world, the aging actress’ arrival puts into motion a comic tour-de-force during Act I that subsides slightly during the play’s latter half.

The success of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is audiences do not need even a passing understanding of the works of Anton Chekhov to enjoy the show and be entertained. Most theatergoers probably have some insight or cursory knowledge of the Russian playwright’s works, but a familiarity with his classics is not necessary. For individuals more attuned to his plays, the rewards are more icing on the cake. During Act I, when characters and plotlines are being introduced the laughs come fast and furious. I found Act II less riotous and more chuckles as Christopher Durang’s machinations and maneuverings become neatly tied up. However, I don’t think my play going partner would agree as she continued to howl until the final curtain.

The cast is outstanding. In lesser hands, the show would just not work. Leslie Hendrix, well-known as the somber, matter-of-fact medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers on the television series, Law and Order, is so luxuriously over-the-top as the aging, ego-starved Masha. Her unrestrained, yet sometimes vulnerable portrayal is the highlight of the play. What makes the character so fabulously funny is the juxtaposition of her TV role with her stage persona. Caryn West, initially one-dimensional as the whining, self-effacing sister, Sonia, becomes more layered and sympathetic as the play progresses. She also delivers an impeccable Maggie Smith imitation to glorious effect. Mark Nelson as the patriarch Vanya is a little too stoic in the role. While his Act II rant of a monologue brought down the house, Nelson’s comic sensibilities were not as acute as those of his fellow actors. David Gregory, as the finely chiseled Spike, spends half the production in states of undress (I’m sure to the duress of all the ladies in the house). His Spike is so clueless, but can be simply outrageous as with his reverse striptease routine. Stacey Sargeant, as Cassandra, the housekeeper, is consistently laugh out loud hysterical with her dire predictions, voodoo misdeeds, and comedic comebacks. Andrea Lynn Green, is fine with the small role of the young next-door neighbor, Nina. She is probably the only sane one onstage. 

Director Maxwell Williams guides the troupe with sureness and intelligence.  He allows each actor to shine in his or her spotlight moments, but at the same time forges a unity, which gives the production more of an ensemble feel to it. The director devises some wickedly side-splitting scenes that the actors carry out with finesse and aplomb.

Crafting a well-constructed comedy that resonates with a majority of the audience is extremely difficult. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike meets the challenge with rib-tickling results. Playing at Hartford Stage through June 22nd.

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