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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Beaches

Mary Beth Fisher, Ross Lehman, Jordan Brown, Janet Ulrich Brooks
Mashups of the classics seem to be the rage in Chicago's summer theatre season, starting with the remount of last fall's All Our Tragic, an 11-hour marathon of all the extant Greek tragedies. Moving ahead several centuries in theatre history, we can revisit Chekhov's four great full-length plays in two hours and 45 minutes via the Goodman's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. In Christopher Durang's 2013 Tony Award-winning play, Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the middle-aged children of university professors who named them after Chekhov characters. Durang's plot is taken mostly from Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, with references to The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters thrown in for good measure.

Durang's Vanya and Sonia, like Chekhov's, manage a large estate owned by a family member. Here, the estate is in tony Bucks County Pennsylvania and sister Masha, a famous film and stage actress, is the family member who owns it. Though it belonged to the three siblngs' parents, Masha is the only one with any income and thus has been paying for all the estate's expenses as well as providing Vanya and Sonia with a monthly stipend. Masha is named for the middle of Chekhov's "three sisters," but she possesses the same sort of oversized ego as The Seagull's Arkadina. Masha's function in the plot is similar to Uncle Vanya's Serebryakov—the owner of the estate, and like Serebryakov, she arrives at the estate with a much younger lover in tow. In Masha's case, the lover is the dim but sexy, aspiring actor Spike.

More significant than the similarities in character names and plot details is Durang's exploration of Chekhov's major theme of resistance to change. Like Chekhov's three sisters who long to move to Moscow, but never leave their provincial estate, Durang's Vanya and Sonia are stuck in stasis. Having forgone careers or romantic relationships to care for their now deceased parents, the fiftyish brother and (adopted) sister have little to do but occasionally spar with the Jamaican cleaning woman Cassandra, who appropriately enough is constantly issuing warnings of impending doom. They're loath to take any emotional risks—Sonia believes herself to be too unattractive to find a mate, while Vanya is writing a play he's afraid to show to anyone. Additionally, Vanya is resistant to societal change of any type.

Many dispute the classification of Chekhov's plays as comedies, but there's no ambiguity about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. As written by Durang and directed here by Steve Scott, the comedy of the play's first act is broad and frequently bordering on the absurd. The general melancholy experienced by Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) is frequently interrupted by sudden outbursts of emotion that, at times, involve breaking things. Cassandra (E. Faye Butler) is exceedingly loud and melodramatic in predicting the disasters ahead. Masha (Mary Beth Fisher) is impossibly vain and unconcerned if not completely oblivious to the feelings of others while Spike (Jordan Brown) is quite simply, as dumb as the rock-hard muscles he displays as often as possible. The reticent Vanya (Ross Lehman) is a sort of straight man in contrast to these oversized characters around him. Durang and Scott find a lot of laughs in these characters, with much credit due to the impeccable comic performances of the cast, but egocentric and beautiful-but-dumb actors are easy targets. Over the course of the 75-minute first act, one tires of it all a bit, in spite of the abundant laughs.

In the second act, though, Durang starts to give us a more empathetic and nuanced view of the characters (except for Spike—for whom Durang is totally unforgiving). We see Masha's insecurities behind her outlandish behavior, Vanya and Sonia start to creep out of their shells, and Cassandra begins to take actions that make her a full character. A sixth character, the young aspiring actress Nina (Rebecca Buller), becomes more than the naïf she appears in the first act and proves to have substance. As Durang views his characters more generously, he becomes more Chekhovian—maybe even improving on Chekhov by allowing his characters to grow and leaving us with a hopeful ending.

The cast of six is spot-on in their characterizations and timing. Ms. Ulrich Brooks is both funny and heartbreaking as the lonely, plain Sonia, while Ms. Fisher deftly manages the shifts in Masha's demeanor as she begins to show her vulnerabilities. Brown's Spike is a complete cartoon, but that's the role Durang wrote and Brown is exceedingly watchable in it. Butler has no hesitancy in taking Cassandra's delivery of her prophecies way over the top—so far over the top, she seems to be from another play, and surely that's Durang's point. She's not only from another play but a whole other genre of world drama. Lehman communicates volumes about his Vanya, a late-middle aged gay man, presumably celibate and filled with regret but not self-pity. Lehman's performance, especially his long act two tirade in which Vanya lashes out against all the technical and societal changes of the past half-century, is reason enough to see the show. Set off by Spike's quizzical reaction to Vanya's reference to the lost practice of licking postage stamps, it touches every conceivable negative change in the way we communicate and interact in this second decade of the 21st century. Undoubtedly, many in the audience will agree.

It seems that Scott might have chosen a less broad, more ironic tone for the first act and Durang could certainly have trimmed his script by a good twenty minutes at least. Even so, this play provides a resonant updating of Chekhov's humanism that provides a solid comedy with heart.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through July 26, 2015. Ticket information is available at and 312-443-3800.

Photo: Liz Lauren

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