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St. Louis by Richard Green

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Also see Richard's review of Blood Reigns: The War of The Roses


Elizabeth Hess, John Feltch, Suzanne Grodner
Dear (two or three) Couples That Left At Intermission: You really missed it.

That is all.

Yes, act one of Christopher Durang's 2012 comedy sometimes seems like a bad sitcom, even as the Americans here are busily trying to turn themselves into listless czarist peasants in 19th century Russia—existentially bemoaning their fate. Just like Vanya and Sonia reckoning together in the dark, at the end of Chekov's Uncle Vanya.

But act two more than makes up for that first half—hell, it redeems act one, and probably even a few other (seemingly hopeless) plays too, including Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, where American actors literally pretend to be gloomy 19th century Russians; and the Rep's own 2013 production of David Lindsey-Abaire's Good People, where a Boston shop girl loses her job at the dollar store, and tries to re-connect with a former school crush who made good. (If you go to the theater very often, it probably seems like we've been slipping down an economic K-hole, all at once.)

But here the Americans on stage eventually remember they are, in fact, Americans. What a relief.

However. That somewhat disappointing first act also reminds us of a couple of unfortunate theatrical messes, of meaner aspiration. And that's why people fled at intermission here, I think. One of those plays that Durang's first act called to mind was James Kirkwood Jr.'s Legends, which toured the U.S. in the 1980s with Carol Channing and Mary Martin. The other was The New Century, Paul Rudnick's more recent pastiche (seen here in town in 2012). Like both of those inconsequential pieces, act one of Vanya and Sonia ... makes a big deal out of a male striptease (getting right down to it in the first 12 minutes, in fact). But to his credit, Durang raises low beefcake comedy to completely absurd heights, with the help of fearless director Michael Evan Haney (and the well-proportioned Jefferson McDonald, as Spike).

I mean, I can still see why those couples left, as soon as the first act was over, absurdity or not. Vanya and Sonia's sister Masha is a Hollywood diva coming to sell the charming home they live in (just like Professor Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya). And before you know it, the contrivances are piled up like some multi-car wreck on the interstate (with that beefcake stripper, the whole Chekov thing, and a sassy black housekeeper to boot). And then! It's all "enhanced" by a fourth comical crutch: the promise of a "hilarious" costume party. Not to mention the fact that Vanya and Sonia are already reduced to a Muppet-like (but funny) kind of idiocy, resulting from the routine simplicity of their lives. I almost wanted to bolt myself.

And yet, as I say, Suzanne Grodner is so wonderful as Sonia, and John Feltch does a bang-up job as that nice older bachelor Vanya. She's as sadly winsome as Diane Wiest, though she does manage to tiptoe up to the brink of astonishing transformation, eventually. And Mr. Feltch's Vanya, so spaced-out till he absolutely has to pull it all together, is the one who ties everything together at the end—though of course I am reluctant to say how.

But let me put it this way: remember the ending of George Gershwin's An American In Paris, where the whole orchestral piece just seems to explode like some over-wound old pocket watch, in the final minutes? All of Gershwin's musical themes and motifs go blasting apart in every direction, like watch gears and jewels and mainsprings, in a moment of great insanity. Then he slams it all back together in an instant. That's what Mr. Feltch does for this play, and for modern America, in one spellbinding, annihilating speech: blasting everything apart, to comprehend the whole at anew.

And finally, all the members of the Hardwick family are forced to take a good look at themselves and realize that, even though their estates may be diminished, there's always something they can do. The media have chopped us all up, culturally (as that big closing monolog suggests), the same way fishermen used to chop up pesky starfish, and thrown the parts back into the sea, and we may likewise come roaring back to face our own worst challenges.

Thanks to Durang's four or five funniest scenes, measured out perfectly, and in spite of the characters' initial surrender to their circumstance, it may (ultimately) be the most unexpectedly patriotic American play I've seen in a long time. It makes you want to stand up and take charge of things, all over again.

Shinnerrie Jackson is delightful as the house-cleaner with slightly impaired "second sight," and Elizabeth Hess does nicely as the aging diva—especially when mourning her has-been status in Hollywood. (In her Snow White costume, with a dark wig, she also looks a lot like Sigourney Weaver, who originated the role on Broadway.) Her brief time, sobbing uncontrollably with Ms. Grodner, is the most wonderfully bizarre, most hilariously Russian thing I've seen in a long time. Or maybe it's straight out of Lewis Carroll.

Mr. McDonald as Spike the boy toy is daringly awful, and revolutionarily dim, in his youthful vigor. (That means he was very good, though, in the context of this play.) And Gracyn Mix is so nice and charming as the girl next door, even as she throws the Hollywood diva's plans into a cocked hat.

Shockingly good, for those who stick it out. And, probably, the "sticking-it-out" attitude also helps to sweep us up in the play's conclusion, too—the stubborn determination to see it through (just one more time) unites us all, in this uproarious comedy.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 12, 2015, on the mainstage of the Loretto-Hilton theater building, 130 Edgar Road, in Webster Groves. For more information visit www.repstl.org.

The Players (in order of appearance)
Vanya: John Feltch
Sonia: Suzanne Grodner
Cassandra: Shinnerrie Jackson
Masha: Elizabeth Hess
Spike: Jefferson McDonald
Nina: Gracyn Mix

Production Staff
Director: Michael Evan Haney
Scenic Designer: Paul Shortt
Costume Designer: Anne Kennedy
Lighting Designer: James Sale
Sound Designer: Rusty Wandall
Casting Director: Rich Cole
Stage Manager: Champe Leary
Assistant Stage Manager: Tony Dearing


Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr.


-- Richard T. Green

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