Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Roz Friedman
How many trees define a Cherry Orchard? Will the Blue Heron ever arrive?
When you've seen an award-winning play or musical with a seemingly perfect cast, it is difficult to imagine another production equaling or eclipsing it. But, Hartford Stage has done just that. Maxwell Williams has directed last year's triumphant comedy, Vanya, and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang's painfully hilarious tribute to and serious spoof of Checkov's many works with empathy and a sharp-edged sword.
The cast is superb. On a perfect set by Jeff Cowie, a lovely farmhouse in Bucks County, punctuated by stone and wood, lit in warm but bright tones by John Lasiter, we meet Vanya, the incomparable Mark Nelson, and his adopted sister, Sonia, played by red-head Caryn West, capturing the bi-polar features of this middle-aged woman, who feels she has not lived. They have been living together for all of their lives, taking care of the farm and nursing their parents through illness and death, while their sister, Masha, has been paying the bills over the years by acting in a series of steamy sex movies. Leslie Hendrix, tall, willowy and blond, is haughty, yet sympathetic in the role of this egocentric woman, who has been married five times. Early on, after insulting her siblings, she shocks them by telling them that her assistant Hootie Pie has recommended that she sell their house.
If you recognize all of these names and situations from Chekhov's plays, Durang, wants you to. Now into this mix, he throws three contemporary figures: Stacey Sargeant gives a wild reading as Cassandra, the cleaning lady, who is full of voodoo and outrageous predictions that come true regularly; rippling with muscles is David Gregory as Spike, Masha's latest toyboy, who appears to be as dumb as a stone. Third is an aspiring actress, Nina, the dewy Andrea Lynn Green; she's visiting relatives nearby and admires movie-star Masha so much she will do anything for her. Masha has accepted an invitation to a costume party and has even brought along costumes for her brother and sister. She is coming as the Disney version of Snow White and forces her brother and Nina to dress as dwarfs.
Sonia refuses to put on the ugly outfit and “changes her aura” by wearing a glamorous green sequined gown. Adapting a Maggie Smith accent, she is the life of the party. This outrages Masha, who is mistaken for Norma Desmond and other unlikely characters. (Kristine Nielson played the character on Broadway and created the accent.) Sonia is delighted when Joe from the party asks her out.
All through the play, Vanya, who admits he is Gay, has been a patient and understanding brother, putting up with everyone's bizarre behavior.Finally, he snaps and delivers a stinging monologue about how things have changed and not for the better since the 1950's. “We licked postage stamps,” he rants, and goes on from there. With controlled expertise, Mark Nelson expresses the rage and fear and anger and disappointment that Vanya has been experiencing. As always, his performance is first rate.
Along the way, there are references to the cherry trees on the property. What about our cherry orchard? Someone asks. And another answers: There are only 10 or eleven trees....that's not an orchard!
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, lives up to its reputation as the Best Play of 2013. at the Hartford Stage through June 22.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS RADIO