Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Also see Caleb's review of The Illusion
Up to now, I have not been a fan of Christopher Durang. I have found his plays more cruel than funny, of little consequence, and eminently forgettable. (I know that I saw Betty's Summer Vacation and Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them fairly recently, and yet I remember nothing about them.) So it came as a surprise to me that I liked Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and I think it might stick with me for a while.
I had thought the Tony might really be more of a "lifetime achievement award" for Durang than for this particular play. But maybe this really was the best non-musical show on Broadway last season. You wouldn't know it from the first act, though. The exposition is clunky, the jokes not all that witty, and the plot (what little there is of it) contrived. It's almost like a grad school sketch: How many Chekhov references can we throw in to show how smart we are?
But come back after intermission, and in the second act it turns around and becomes a play that stands on its own. Despite the fact that all four major Chekhov plays are alluded to, it is not a pastiche or a parody of Chekhov, but resolutely contemporary and American and even somewhat touching. Very little absurdity, no cruelty, and sunniness rather than darkness (with an appropriate Beatles song on the soundtrack). It must be that Durang has entered the warm September of his years.
The premise is that three siblings had parents who were professors and community-theater people, and they saddled their children with names from Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. Vanya and Sonia stayed home to take care of the ailing parents while Masha became a famous movie star (but not a respected actress). The parents have died, but lost souls Vanya and Sonia have never left home; since Masha pays the bills, they have no incentive to get out and do something with their lives.
Masha, a serial divorcée, shows up for a visit with her much younger boyfriend Spike, one of those handsome and hunky Hollywood types with zero acting talent. Masha thinks it's about time to sell the house (a classic Chekhov plot device), since she's not making the kind of money she used to. What's to become of Vanya and Sonia, then? Of Masha and Spike?
Actually, that's about it for the plot, except that Nina, an aspiring actress, materializes out of The Seagull to complicate things between Masha and Spike. And to fill the time, Durang throws in a costume party that Masha makes everybody go to. But the plot isn't what makes this play work, anyway.
It's the two brilliant set-pieces (arias, really) in the second act that won me over. One is for Sonia, on the telephone. The other is for Vanya, an extended tirade against the 21st century lifestyle exemplified by Spike. Here, Durang is playing to an audience of his peers. When the funniest line references Señor Wences from "The Ed Sullivan Show," it's obvious that this monologue can only be fully enjoyed by people over 50, but since I'm in that demographic, I loved it.
Gil Lazier, the director, has done a good job of making things snappy. There's never a dull moment. As always with Fusion, the set by Richard Hogle and props by Robyn Phillips are excellent. The costumes by Elizabeth Huffman are entertaining, but the evening gown worn by Sonia to the costume party is maybe too glamorous.
Bruce Holmes is very good as Vanya, and excellent in the long monologue. Jacqueline Reid (Sonia) does a little too much mugging in the first act, but acquits herself brilliantly in the telephone scene. It's some of the best acting I've ever seen her do. Ross Kelly (Spike) is appropriately good-looking and well-built, but also hilarious, and his rendition of a failed audition for "Entourage 2" is side-splitting. Andréa N. Agosto is sweetness personified as Nina; if there is supposed to be any Eve Harrington in this character, I didn't pick it up from Andréa, but that did not detract from a good performance.
Elizabeth Huffman is certainly hyper as the oracular housekeeper Cassandra, a little too much so. Using an unplaceable accent, she talks so fast and so loud that I missed a fair number of the funny lines that Durang has given her. The member of the cast that I was not quite satisfied with is Joanne Camp as Masha. There was nothing about her that convinced me that she could have been a movie star, not even a fading one. Maybe it was the unattractive wig. Or the grating voice. It's ironic, if that's the word, that Joanne Camp directed such a wonderful Seagull last season at the Vortex Theatre, but doesn't pull off a Chekhov-via-Durang character here.
All in all, though, this is a fine production of a good play, and we few, we lucky few in New Mexico, can see it first, as it makes the rounds of the country's regional areas.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang is being presented by Fusion Theatre Company, in Albuquerque and Las Cruces and Santa Fe through 28, 2013. Various times and venues. See their website at www.fusionabq.org .