If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“Vanya” Closes out Hartford Stage Season

I have this Connecticut theatre rule that rarely fails me. It proposes that any play featuring Mark Nelson in the cast is never going to be a waste of time. Mr. Nelson’s enviable work in regional theatres around Connecticut includes “Underneath the Lintel”, “The Master Builder”, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and “My Name Is Asher Lev” to name just a few. You can now catch Nelson in the season-closer at Hartford Stage, Christopher Durang’s latest comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”. He does not disappoint.

Winner of the Tony Award for “Best Play” and easily Christopher Durang’s finest work in years, “Vanya” is a contemporary homage to the works of Anton Chekhov. Set on a farmhouse in Bucks County (the lovely design is by Jeff Cowie, warmly lit by John Lasiter), the peaceful if uneventful days here are spent by Vanya (Mr. Nelson) and his adopted sister Sonia (a marvelous Caryn West). Bankrolled by their movie star sister, Masha (Leslie Hendrix), the siblings have spent most of their lives caring for their parents. When the parents died, however, life seemed to stop for Sonia and Vanya, too. When Masha arrives with chiseled boy-toy Spike (an outrageously funny David Gregory) in tow and announces plans to finally sell the farmhouse, Sonia and Vanya are forced to take stock of their dreary lives.

Mr. Durang’s pastoral love letter to Chekhov is highlighted by numerous references to the playwright’s greatest works while skewing everything in sight to a contemporary beat. Each character is tested by the demands and vagaries of love and come to be quite different people once this hilarious but often bittersweet comedy has come to its satisfying conclusion. Director Maxwell Williams has delivered the goods with his fine cast though some have been allowed to push the comedy to extremes. Hendrix, in particular, comes on very strong and tends to hit the jokes awfully hard in act one. Her diva act soon wears thin, but things improve later in the play when more of her character’s vulnerability is revealed.

Caryn West seems to be having a ball transforming the initially dowdy and depressing Sonia into the belle of the ball. Her phone monologue with a potential new suitor late in the play is played with just the right amount of bafflement, hesitation and utter joy. Stacey Sargeant has a scene-stealing role as Cassandra, Vanya and Sonia’s cleaning woman who (channeling her namesake) takes pride in proclaiming ridiculous and rather confusing predictions while dabbling in voodoo. Mr. Gregory is one of those rare sexy hunks who can also really act. His outlandish “reverse striptease” in the play is a thing of comic beauty.

Of Mr. Nelson, however, there is not enough praise one could render. He infuses Vanya with the perfect melancholy air of sadness and spunk. His uproarious and endearing second act rant about the perils of technology encompasses everything from the joy of licking postage stamps and the tragic film career of Tommy Kirk to the oddness of a television show like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. It’s an exhilarating climax that quite simply brings down the house. The actor’s record as a consummate theatre pro remains intact. Cherish him and don’t miss this play.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” continues at Hartford Stage through June 22. For ticket reservations call 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org. 

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

Posted 6.5.2014

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