Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Huntington Theatre Company

Also see Nancy's review of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins


Tyler Lansing Weaks, Marcia DeBonis, Martin Moran, Allison Layman, Candy Buckley, Haneefah Wood
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeChristopher Durang loves Chekhov plays and writes comedies. He has sublimely combined his affection and his skill in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 Tony Award-winning Best Play being staged at the Huntington Theatre Company in a production dedicated to former Huntington Artistic Director Nicholas Martin. Limning Chekov's classic themes of loss and longing, Durang draws characters who persevere in the face of disappointment and dissatisfaction, somehow managing to laugh at their foibles even while mired in existential angst, and simultaneously pokes fun at and pays homage to the great Russian author.

Do not be concerned that you'll miss out on the humor if you haven't recently brushed up your Chekhov, but the cleverly inserted references will add some resonance for the initiates. HTC regulars have been exposed to The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard in the last few years and may recognize some familiar lines and allusions. Beyond that, Durang has not named his characters to represent specific characters with the same names in Chekhov's plays, but the explanation in his conceit is that the parents of Vanya, Sonia and Masha were professors and theater enthusiasts. Like their namesakes, the three middle-aged siblings worry about the meaning of life and reflect upon their choices and the "what-ifs" that we all have.

Vanya (Martin Moran) and Sonia (Marcia DeBonis) live in the family's Bucks County, Pennsylvania, bucolic fieldstone house (beautifully conceived by scenic designer David Korins) where they cared for their aging parents, now deceased, while movie star Masha (Candy Buckley) went out into the world to make a living to support them all. With her buff young boyfriend Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks) in tow, the oft-married and divorced Masha is home for a weekend visit to attend a costume party (as Snow White) and drop a bombshell on her brother and sister. Their prescient housekeeper Cassandra (Haneefah Wood) rattles off a slew of warnings to them in advance of Masha's arrival and, one by one, they come true. Also caught up in the mix is Nina (Allison Layman), a star-struck young woman with acting aspirations of her own, who meets Spike at the nearby pond while visiting her aunt and uncle next door.

In the first act, Durang defines the characters and sets up the situation with broad strokes of comedy (some of it played a little too broadly), and then proceeds to flip it all topsy turvy after intermission as the siblings step out of their comfort zones for a time. Sonia is the sad sack adopted child, always in the background like a piece of furniture, who longs for Vanya. DeBonis is a master of sighs, down-at-the-mouth expressions, and slumping shoulders, but she rises to the occasion and holds her head erect when dressed as Snow White's evil queen (as played by Maggie Smith) for the costume party. When Sonia gets a phone call and a dinner invitation from a man she met at the party, it is so much fun to watch the range of emotions wash over DeBonis' face as she considers her answer.

Vanya, the gay brother and the peacemaker in the family, is more accepting of his lot in life, including his celibacy, until Spike comes along to stir things up. On a different level, Nina befriends Vanya and encourages him to share the play he's been writing with the others. The staged reading leads into an uproarious monologue, an extended rant against the passage of time by one who sees the hands of the clock rapidly spinning. Moran nails it before quietly reverting to his more placid self. He leaves his onstage audience appropriately dumbfounded, while the house is in hysterics at Durang's rapid-fire stream of consciousness that touches on everything from licking postage stamps to Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Narcissistic Masha's entrance both energizes and sucks the air out of the room, a neat trick that Buckley pulls off with lots of movement and loud vocalizing. While she starts at a very high pitch, she settles into a more nuanced performance, allowing us to see the character's vulnerabilities beneath the brashness. Durang fast forwards to the denouement without laying much groundwork for Masha's change of heart, but Buckley fits herself comfortably into the final tableau. I was never convinced of any real heat between Masha and Spike, although Weaks is a likable hunk of eye candy who squeezes every ounce from his juicy role.

Wood steals the show more than once with her comic timing and dance moves, but nothing beats her voodoo demonstration. Layman's character is at the opposite end of the spectrum, but she often says more with her eyes than her lines convey. Although neither of them is included in the title, Cassandra and Nina are vital players used to offset the gloomy, neurotic siblings and help to bring about some small but important changes in their world view.

The Huntington is one of 27 regional theaters to stage Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike this season. Director Jessica Stone based her direction on the work of her dear friend Martin (who passed away last April), a Tony nominee as director for the original Broadway production. Her creative team includes two designers (original music and sound design by Mark Bennett and Korins) from the Broadway show and features costumes by Gabriel Berry and lighting by David Weiner. The world they create together, with its strong architecture, warm morning sunlight, and distant call of loons, instills an understanding of what this home means to the three siblings. Amidst all the laughter, bickering, and shenanigans, Durang reminds us that we are connected by our shared memories and there's no place like home.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, performances through February 1, 2015, at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.

Written by Christopher Durang; Directed by Jessica Stone, Based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin; Scenic Design, David Korins; Costume Design, Gabriel Berry; Lighting Design, David Weiner; Original Music & Sound Design, Mark Bennett; Associate Director, Bryan Hunt; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle

Cast (in order of appearance): Marcia DeBonis, Martin Moran, Haneefah Wood, Candy Buckley, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Allison Layman


Photo: Jim Cox

- Nancy Grossman




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