Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Review by Geary Danihy

You don’t have to be a Chekhov aficionado to enjoy Christopher’s Durang’s dark comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford under the capable direction of Jocelyn Beard. However, if you have at least a passing familiarity with Chekhov’s plays, then the names of three of the main characters will ring a bell, as will some of the plot points in Durang’s play, which is set in Bucks County, PA. You will also register the emotional travails that haunt Vanya, Sonia and Masha as they constantly analyze their lives and bemoan their fates. However, this is a comedy, and the cast, by and large, delivers the goods along with several standout performances. All in all, this production is proof that “small” theatrical venues can offer professional, intriguing – and often entrancing – theater.

So, the set-up and the plot: we have a brother and a sister, Vanya (David Fritsch) and Sonia (Lana Peck), who have lived together since childhood in a house now owned by their sister Masha (Ali Bernhardt), a fading movie actress who pays all the household bills and gives her siblings a monthly stipend. Vanya and Sonia, whose lives have settled into a bickering routine, have never worked, have no manifest skills, and their one claim to fame is that they took care of their aging parents into their dotage. One of their primary topics of conversation is about a blue heron who occasionally visits the pond in front of their house. The oft-spoken question of the day: will the bird return?

After Vanya and Sonia’s relationship is established, enter Masha, who has come home to attend a costume party hosted by an influential neighbor who lives in a house once owned by Dorothy Parker. In tow is Spike (Nick Raines), Masha’s current boy-toy, whom she uses to dissipate the pain of her five failed marriages. They are greeted by Vanya and Sonia’s cleaning lady, Cassandra (Sumiah Gay) who, true to her name, is inclined to prophesy, utterances that no one takes seriously. They are soon visited by Nina (Maya Jennings Daley), a neighbor and aspiring actress who desperately wants to meet Masha. There you have it. Most of the rest of the first act, and well into the second act, involves preparations for the costume party, to which all of the characters are invited, and the party’s aftermath.

The play, which won both a Tony and a Drama Desk award for Best Play, references Chekhov’s dramas but is not slavishly adherent to the characters that Chekhov created. In fact, the siblings were named by their professorial parents because the parents admired Chekhov. Yes, there’s a cherry orchard, although the characters argue over whether nine or ten trees constitute an “orchard,” and there is a lot of sibling arguments, plus the possibility that Vanya and Sonia might lose their ancestral home and the fact that Vanya has secretly written a play inspired by a character in “The Seagull,” Konstantin, who wrote a symbolist drama.

What about the production itself? Well, it runs smoothly although some of the performances are a bit uneven. Bernhardt, as Masha, is at moments just a tad too strident. Yes, she’s supposed to be manipulative, high-strung and self-absorbed, but she often delivers her lines as if she is Bette Davis on uppers. A bit of modulation might be in order. The other performance that might create a bit of a frown is Daley’s as the somewhat naïve Nina (also a name from a Chekhov play). It’s the ingénue role, and Daley “ingenues” it to the hilt. A little less sugar and just a bit more spice might enhance the performance. I mean, how “nice” can you be when you want to go to a costume party as a princess but are forced to go as Dopey the Dwarf (great costume by designer Sue Haneman) to satisfy someone else’s ego?

As for the other four actors, they all provide solid performances. Raines’ Spike is dead-on as the mindless, unsuccessful actor obsessed with his body, so much so that he strips whenever the opportunity arises, much to the consternation of Vanya, a homosexual for whom the closet-door is only half-way open. Spike is of the species that used to be called a lounge lizard, and Raines plays the role so well that you can almost imagine seeing some scales on his back. In true lizard fashion, he speaks with forked tongue with regards to Masha, who, in the final moments of the play, dumps him and sends him packing.

Then there’s Gay, the prophetess Cassandra. Her role is a bit constrained, since she has one primary characteristic: her ability to foresee the future, but she deftly switches from Greek oracle to her other role as cleaning lady, including a marked change in body language. Her best moments are in the second act when, with the help of a voodoo doll and a pin, she tries to punish Masha for contemplating selling the house.

Finally, there’s Fritsch and Peck, who work together seamlessly as two siblings who have come to adjust to each other’s quirks and needs. You truly believe that they have been together forever. In the second act, each character has her or his moment to shine. First, there’s Peck, who receives a phone call from a man whom she met at the previous night’s party who found her “charming” and wishes to take her out to dinner. Of course, we only hear one side of the conversation, so it falls on Peck to make us understand what is being said to her, which she does with great aplomb while conveying her character’s ambivalence about going out on a date. Her exit after this soliloquy received a well-deserved round of applause, for it was softly yet compellingly mesmerizing.

Fritsch, as Vanya, must assume many roles as he tries to live with Sonia and arbitrate the arguments and lessen the occasional near-psychotic hysteria of the two women. He also has his moment in the spotlight near the end of act two. Nina has agreed to perform his play (she plays a molecule set free after the destruction of Earth) for the rest of the family and Spike. As might be expected, the play is a bit inane, which allows Spike to open his cell phone and start texting. Vanya sees this and it triggers a four- or five-minute diatribe about what has changed in our society. For an audience of a certain age (the opening night audience would certainly qualify, as do I), Vanya’s rant takes us down Memory Lane to a time when people wrote letters and licked stamps, watched “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and kids, mostly boys, wore coonskin hats in emulation of Davy Crockett and were transfixed by the pubescent sexual allure of Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club. The specific references might be lost on younger generations, but Vanya’s sense of loss and feelings that he is now a stranger in a strange land are palpable and can be understood by anyone regardless of age, and Fritsch delivers this diatribe with a rising sense of loss and remorse for the irretrievable.

Yes, in the end, the siblings are united, but you sense that the bickering will never stop – it’s in their blood. The last we see of them they are arranged in family-photograph order with the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background and the blue heron (compliments of projection designer Philip Lamb) returning to the pond. Is this a happy ending? Well, if you know your Chekhov, you suspect not.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through August 3. For tickets or more information go to www.theatreworks.us or call 860-350-6863.

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