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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis


Suzanne Warmanen, Candy Buckley, James Campbell and Charles Janasz
Getting right to the point: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spikeat the Guthrie is an all-out smash. The 2013 Best Play Tony Award winner by Christopher Durang produces abundant big laughs that fill the house at the McGuire Proscenium Stage Theater, creates original characters that are both archly exaggerated and recognizably human, and slides in a coddle-warming message of the value of home and family. All six actors give terrific performances, punching the laughs while revealing the hurt and heart of their characters, and Joel Sass' direction moves the action swiftly apace, shifting fluidly between manic farce and poignant repose.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha's college-professor parents named their children after characters from Chekhov, a device that has pre-destined the arc of their lives. Vanya (Charles Janasz) and Sonia (Suzanne Warmanen) have always lived in their family's Bucks County Pennsylvania home, where they cared for their parents through dementia and death. They have become part of the furnishings, settling into overstuffed chairs and gazing out the window to await the arrival of a blue heron. Masha (Candy Buckley) is a movie star who has globe-trotted, burned through five husbands, and given up an imagined career as a classical actress to appear in a series of slasher films that earned her a degree of fame and wealth, enough of the latter to support her siblings and maintain the family estate she has left behind.

The action begins with a rare stop at home by Masha, ostensibly to attend a costume party being given by the new residents of a neighboring estate once owned by Dorothy Parker. When Vanya and Sonia point out that they, who are actually neighbors, were not invited, Masha imperiously points out it is because she is a celebrity, while they are not. Masha plays celebrity to the hilt, divinely self-absorbed. As it turns out, Sonia is equally self-absorbed by her self-loathing and regret. Vanya takes on the role of arbiter, disappearing between his sisters' histrionics, though he has longings of his own.

Masha also has a darker purpose for her visit—to sell the only home Vanya and Sonia have ever known. The aging structure increasingly needs repair, Masha is rarely there, and—she is forced to admit—the fees for her acting stints are not what they once were. Masha, who is certainly past the half century mark, arrives with her newest love object in tow, twenty-something Spike (Joshua James Campbell). Spike's vanity and hyper-need for attention manage to eclipse even Masha's.

This merry blend of Chekhovian themes and personages—as sweet as a smoothie and as dry as a martini in equal measure—plays itself out over the course of two days. A soothsaying West Indian cleaning woman named Cassandra (Isabell Monk O'Connor) and a star-struck young neighbor named, in another tip to Chekhov, Nina (Ali Rose Dachis) add surprises to the mixture and contribute to the final outcome.

Warmanen brings a high note of ferocity to Sonia's self-pity. She will not let anyone stand in the way of her claim to the most un-lived of lives. Her transformation when adorned in costume for the party in question is a delight; her further transformation when a man she meets at the party follows up with a phone call, a miracle. Janasz paints Vanya with a face of good cheer that cannot conceal his disappointment as a man whose best years never were. The opportunity to unleash his creativity transforms him as well, first to revel in the joy of creation, and then to approach a melt-down in the face of indifference. The latter might be a moment of grave defeatism if not for the hilarity with which Janasz explodes and unleashes the pain of lost decades to skyrocket all over the room.

Buckley is appropriately over the top as the movie star Masha. If on occasion there is a crack in the veneer, threatening to let the vacuity of her life be seen, Buckley revs up the engines to make Masha a step more outrageously self-deluded. When she says to the admiring Nina, "Oh, I'm monstrous ... but loveably monstrous, I hope," she reveals a hint of vulnerability before quickly reverting to diva form.

Spike is written as a cartoon: inarticulate, oversexed, totally lacking social graces ... and funny as all get out. Campbell wrings every sweaty laugh out of Spike's friskiness, and two scenes in particular—a reverse strip-tease, and his audition for a part he came close to getting in "Entourage 2"—produce gales of laughter. Campbell also does well by Spike's frequent preening wearing nothing but underwear.

O'Connor, a Guthrie mainstay for many years, creates a masterwork in Cassandra, the in-control cleaning woman whose prescient spasms yield prophecies sprinkled with random mumblings such as "my car needs to get inspected" and a line from the Beatle's "Magical Mystery Tour." When Cassandra uses voodoo, O'Connor imbues her character with devilish delight that is outright contagious. Dachis holds her own in the smallest and least showy part: innocent and adoring, yet wise to the flaws in those she is admiring.

Set designer Todd Rosenthal has created a wonderful faux rustic living room where the action plays out. Ilona Somogyi's costumes rightly serve each character's frame of mind. The party costumes are among the funniest bits of humor in this constantly funny play.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is among the funniest plays to pass our way in a long time. That it carries with it a tender heart and has been mounted in a sparkling production makes it a show not to be missed.

Continues at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage through August 31, 2014. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $40.00 - $70.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Written by Christopher Durang; Directed by Joel Sass; Set design by Todd Rosenthal; Costume design by Ilona Somogyi; Lighting design by Barry Browning; Sound design by Sean Healey.

Cast: Candy Buckley (Masha); Joshua James Campbell (Spike); Ali Rose Dachis (Nina); Charles Janasz (Vanya); Isabell Monk O'Connor (Cassandra); Suzanne Warmanen (Sonia).


Photo: Joan Marcus


- Arthur Dorman



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