Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Center Theatre Group

Kristine Nielsen, Mark Blum, Christine Ebersole,
David Hull and Liesel Allen Yeager

I've found that at least once a year there is a show that is loved and lauded by public and critics alike, a play that garners awards and big box office, and yet bafflingly leaves me completely cold. This year, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is that show. I was looking forward to seeing it; I like Christopher Durang and Anton Chekhov. I wasn't in a bad mood and I held no grudge against the theatre company. The audience I saw it with seemingly couldn't have loved it more—the man sitting next to me kept jackknifing in his seat with violent expressions of laughter as if he were continually being electrified. The standing ovation at the end was loud and long and seemed heartfelt. Somehow, however, as I sat there in the Mark Taper Forum for the Center Theatre Group's production, I was unmoved. I didn't laugh, I didn't cry: it just didn't work for me. Many, many people are going to genuinely love this show, which is fine, but for those who are curious as to my contrary opinion, I'll try to explain it.

Parents who were admirers of Chekhov named their children after some of his famous characters: Vanya (Mark Blum), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Christine Ebersole). Vanya and Sonia took care of their elderly, Alzheimers-afflicted parents at their home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, while Masha became a famous actress. The parents passed on, but Vanya and Sonia stayed at home, getting older and living off money that Masha provides. Masha returns home for a visit with boy-toy Spike (David Hull) in tow, ostensibly to attend a local costume party. Sonia expresses her resentment of Masha, complaining that she's never lived while Masha has had so much. Upon meeting friendly young actress neighbor Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager), Vanya comes out of his shell a bit and reveals he's writing a play. The family dynamics are disrupted, however, when Masha admits she's intending to sell the house, which will irrevocably change Vanya and Sonia's lives.

Ebersole is terrific as Masha, an actress clinging to the security of her youthful success, and, of the leads, she's the most adept at balancing the comedy and drama of the piece. Her delivery of a song from Disney's Snow White, high-pitched and warbled like an old record, is a charming highlight. Nielsen, Tony-nominated for her performance in the New York production, has amusing moments—her Maggie Smith impression is spot-on—but she seems overly mannered here, as if she's more concerned with re-creating that performance than exploring the role afresh. To be fair, the writing for Sonia seems the least believable, and there's only so much an actor can do with that.

The role of Vanya is underwritten, and although Blum is good, he gets little of interest to do until his huge rant in act two. Blum delivers this epic harangue with energy and focus, but the content of the speech seems to me to be of the disappointingly familiar "old man telling kids to get off of his lawn" variety and doesn't merit its length. Hull garners plenty of laughs as the self-obsessed yet puppyish Spike, and Yeager is perfectly wide-eyed and admiring as the ingenuous Nina. Shalita Grant, also Tony-nominated for her role as housekeeper and voodoo aficionado Cassandra, plays the role pretty broadly with exaggerated motions and a variably squeaky voice, but again the part wasn't written with subtlety in mind.

Not having seen the New York production, I don't know how much David Hyde Pierce's direction differs from that of original director Nicholas Martin (who is credited in the program with Pierce's direction listed as "based on" Martin's). That being said, Pierce's staging and pacing are professional, but he might have tried a bit harder to rein in a couple of his actors' excesses. I'm glad that writer Christopher Durang, whose work I've long admired, had a hit and won a Tony at last, but I'm puzzled why this show has been embraced while other plays he's written haven't. It's not as if the general theatregoing public has a love for all things Chekhov-related. A friend who saw the show with me expressed concern that her knowledge of Chekhov wasn't as all-encompassing as she might like, but that proved no impediment to her enjoying the play. I think Durang attempts two stylistic things with Vanya ..., the first of which is its connection with the famed Russian playwright. Many of the character names and story arcs are deliberate reflections of Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, but I felt ultimately that these connections weren't fruitful, that Durang didn't really have anything new to say about Chekhov or his themes of melancholic lives. Simple borrowing of plots and character names doesn't automatically create insight or value.

The second thing Durang attempts in this play is to capture the combination of humor and poignancy inherent in Chekhov's work. I believe he fails in the dramatic portions of the play, because the characters are either copies of Chekhov roles or are cartoonish. He lets the Chekhov references do the heavy lifting, so when he tries to make Sonia's loneliness or Vanya's attempt to reconnect with life moving, the audience hasn't invested enough in the characters (as characters in this play instead of the Chekhov works) to care about them. The drama feels shoehorned in and as a result fizzles. Humor is of course subjective, but again it seems that Durang finds the mere introduction of Chekhov references to be humorous in themselves. For example, Sonia goes on repeatedly about being a wild turkey, a mirror of the famous scene in The Seagull in which a young actress compares herself to the titular bird. This reference is in no way funny, and yet it is trotted out proudly like a greatest hit multiple times throughout the show. A lot of the humor in the play is of this sort, which is surprising coming from such a witty writer as Durang. Essentially, I barely laughed for two and a half hours.

David Korins' farmhouse set is handsome and sets the proper mood.

In conclusion, I acknowledge that many people will very much enjoy this show, even though I found it to be a major disappointment.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 9. For tickets and information, see

Center Theatre Group presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang. Directed by David Hyde Pierce. Stage Manager David S. Franklin; Set Design David Korins; Lighting Design David Weiner; Costume Design Gabriel Berry; Original Music & Sound Design Mark Bennett.

Vanya: Mark Blum
Sonia: Kristine Nielsen
Cassandra: Shalita Grant
Masha: Christine Ebersole
Spike: David Hull
Nina: Liesel Allen Yeager

Photo: Craig Schwartz

- Terry Morgan