This Isn't Your Father's Russian Drama

By Karen Isaacs

What happens when playwright Christopher Durang, known for his comic surreal rants, lets loose on Chekhov? The result, the Tony winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is getting a rip-roaring production at Hartford Stage through June 15.

The title and the characters reference several of Chekhov's best known works, but what makes this comedy so delightful is that you do not have be a Chekhov aficionado to enjoy the work.

The play opens on a house in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania where Vanya and his adopted sister, Masha, are having coffee and chatting. They are in their 50s and purposeless now that their elderly parents who they cared for are deceased. Life seems full of ennui. They squabble like an old married couple revealing their insecurities. Into the mix comes their weekly cleaning lady, who takes her name -- Cassandra -- all too seriously spouting a mixture of prophecies and Greek myth references. "Beware" is her favorite opening line.

Perhaps they do have things to beware of, for soon their sister Masha, an aging action movie heroine arrives with her "boy toy" Spike. Spike is all muscle and ego who thinks he is actor. Masha has arrived to attend a costume party at a neighboring house and wants everyone to be in her entourage. But the real news that Vanya and Sonia should beware of is that Masha has decided to sell the family home, thus potentially making the two siblings homeless.

Into this mix comes the niece of other neighbors, a naive young actress named Nina. Spike seems interested which triggers Masha's insecurities -- after all she is much older than him, has five failed marriages, and the only movie roles she is being offered are "mother" types.

What makes this such a delightful work are the wonderful "rants" that Durang has written for each of the characters. They reveal their characters in the same way that Chekhov reveals character but in a more comedic way. Each of the performers has a wonderful scene that lets us truly know him or her.

Sonia, played brilliantly by Caryn West, has several such moments: when she stands up to Masha and refuses to be a dwarf at the costume party -- Masha is going on Walt Disney's Snow White , when she talks on the phone with a man she met at the party and even in the opening scene. Each lets us know something about this woman who has felt an outsider (she was adopted) and ignored most of her life. She blossoms before our eyes. West is terrific when Sonia decides her costume will be the fairytale Queen but as if performed by Maggie Smith.

Spike's moments are less intense for perhaps this is the most stereotypical and underwritten role. You suspect that under the posing and pride in his body there is a somewhat frightened little boy who understands, all too well, his limitations. It may be there but neither Durang nor David Gregory lets us see him. He is all bluster and provocation. His reverse strip-tease is so over-the-top, and it should be, that the audience laughter can probably be heard on the street.

Mark Nelson gives us a Vanya that for me never really captured the totality of the character. Vanya is a closeted gay man who has lived his quiet existence out of sorts with the modern world. He is a 19th century character forced to confront a 21st century world.  Nelson's portrayal seemed more Shylock than Vanya. But Durang has written him the longest of the "rants" and Nelson delivers it with aplomb.Vanya has finally had enough of Spike, and "goes off" on him about the things Vanya misses -- from writing letters to licking stamps -- all of which Spike finds somewhat incredible. Those of us who remember those times, can't help but sympathize and agree with Vanya.

Masha, played by Leslie Hendrix, lets us see the insecurities of an actress regretting some of the choices she has made, fearful of growing older, and all too aware that she won't be able to keep her "boy toy" for long. She too realizes that the younger generation lives by rules that she truly does not understand.

Stacey Sargeant as the prophecy spouting Cassandra and Andrea Lynn Green as Nina add the right spices to this production. Cassandra is larger than life as she should be and Nina is the more quiet observer of this family. That she is drawn to Vanya seems heart-warming and satisfying.

Maxwell Williams has directed this with a sure hand aided by the set by Jeff Cowie, lighting of John Lasiter , costumes by Tricia Barsamian and music/sound design by John Gromada. Williams has not replicated the Broadway production but brought his own sensibility to it.

While Chekhov claimed his works were comedies and some productions do generate laughs, it is nothing like the laughs this production is getting.

Yes, at some point Vanya is referred to as Uncle Vanya, there is reference to a cherry orchard, and if not going to Moscow, going to New York.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is one of those plays that is truly enjoyable while also giving you a great deal to think about.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is at the Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St, Hartford, through June 15. For tickets and information, call the box office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.HartfordStage.org.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers June 11, 2014 and online at Zip06.com.

 


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