A Spike in the Cherry Orchard
By Geary Danihy
Take a good helping of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya and mix in some contemporary soap opera cliches, a dash of TV sitcoms and Disney’s Snow White and what do you get? Well, you get Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the comedy by Christopher Durang that won both the Tony and the Outer Critics Circle awards for best play and is now playing at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk. So, should you rush out and buy the complete works of Chekhov so you can appreciate the play? Not necessary. You may miss some of the in-jokes, but there’s enough there that has nothing to do with the Chekhovian oeuvre to satisfy the most ardent Russophobe. Whether you will be entranced and intrigued remains to be seen, for the production, as directed by Pamela Hill, is somewhat uneven -- there are many moments when it comes to life and entrances, and there are many moments when things just seem to drag.
The situation, drawn from several of Chekhov’s plays, finds Sonia (Cynthia Hannah) and her brother, Vanya (Jim Schilling), living a rather dull, secluded life in their Bucks County home (so far away from Moscow!). Their primary contact with the outside world consists of visits by Cassandra (Katie Sparer), a cleaning lady given to making oracular pronouncements (hence the name). Their quotidian existence is disrupted by the arrival of their sister, Masha (Jodie Stevens), a much-married star of stage and screen, and her latest boy-toy, Spike (Christopher DeRosa). It seems that Masha has been supporting her siblings for many years and, given her flagging career, is eager to sell the house, which includes a stand of cherry trees. Into the mix comes Nina (Carissa Massaro), an erstwhile actress who is visiting the next-door neighbors. Spike is young and attractive; Nina is young and vivacious. Masha immediately becomes jealous.
The obligatory exposition early in the first act is delivered by Vanya and Sonia, and it is delivered at a snail’s pace. Yes, the characters they are playing lead humdrum lives; the problem is they deliver their lines in a somewhat humdrum manner. There’s little or no life. Then Cassandra bursts on the scene as if she is one of the weird sisters in Macbeth on LSD. Over-the-top from her first entrance, Sparer really has no where to go with her character.
Enter Stevens as Masha, with Spike in tow, and the production suddenly comes into sharper focus. She is the quintessential bitch goddess, and Stevens pulls this off with a great deal of style, flare and, well, bitchiness. For the rest of the evening, she will singlehandedly, with two exceptions, drive the production.
The exceptions occur in the second act. The first is Hannah’s extended monologue when he character, Sonia, is on the phone with a man she met at a costume party the previous evening. He is asking her out on a date. She is flummoxed, she is unsure, she doesn’t know how to react, other than to admit that the Maggie Smith accent she used at the party is not really her’s. It’s a subtle, deft piece of acting, one that requires she convey what her gentleman caller is saying even though we never hear his voice.
The second exception occurs fairly late in the second act when Nina reads from a play Vanya has written. Massaro plays a molecule, and she is an absolute delight as she spins, leaps and conveys subtle and not-so-subtle molecular emotions.
Perhaps the role with the biggest challenge is that of Spike, for, as written, he is little more than a somewhat witless piece of well-muscled meat. DeRosa poses, preens, flexes and grins a lot. Playwright Durang hasn’t given Spike much to work with, but DeRosa does what he can to give dimension to what is essentially a cardboard character.
And then we get to what might be considered the climax of the play, which consists of a monologue by Vanya after he sees Spike on his cell phone while Nina is performing Vanya’s play. It’s a “those were the days” set-piece, and it should convey all of the anger, fear and frustration that Vanya has repressed. Alas, it doesn’t. It’s delivered almost in a monotone, sans brio.
Though the rhythm of the production is uneven, Hill has done a fine job blocking the actors in a venue that is essentially a black box with thrust stage. Yes, it’s inevitable that some lines are delivered with the actors’ backs to part of the audience, but Hill shows a good sense of how to use this space, especially in the play-within-a-play sequence in the second act, for she positions her actors so that we are focused on the characters we are supposed to be focused on.
In all, Vanya is an enjoyable evening of theater that needs just a bit more juice.
Vanya runs through March 13. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com