Huntington Theatre Company starts the 2015 theatre season off on a strong note by introducing Boston to the wonderfully zany world of Christopher Durang’s unapologetic love note to Chekhov in his Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Durang is an aging playwright who gained considerable respect with his many off-kilter plays with underlying scathing analyses of our contemporary lives. However, Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike is a more sophisticated play than its predecessors, relying as much on Durang’s rants as the common variations on larger-than-life characters of his prior works. The play is a fulfilling but hollow example of appealing to the masses under the safe disguise of modern theatre.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a mash-up of Chekhov plays into a modern re-imagination of these tortured Russian individuals in Buck County, Pennsylvania. And what is funny about this idyllic country life? Pretty much everything. Starting with the cheerful but never satisfied and downtrodden Vanya (Martin Moran), the play opens with a quiet scene of rural life over a cup of (smashed) coffee with Vanya’s emotional-wreck-of-a-sister, Sonia (Marcia DeBonis). Moran and DeBonis have phenomenal rapport onstage, balancing each other’s neuroses like a shaky cup and saucer, struggling to maintain a rough symbiosis through years of living unfulfilled lives together. Durang’s humor has matured over the years, making his characters less outlandish and more relatable, despite the blunt and hilarious one-liners about their situations. They are just on the precipice of being too self-aware, too intelligent to exist in our world, but Moran and DeBonis, especially, carry the dialogue and its raw, introspective, and self-aware poignancy to excellent effect.
And in a hurry, we are introduced to their black servant, Cassandra (Haneefah Wood), the more offensive caricature of a black domestic servant with clairvoyant visions and voodoo affinity. Wood carries the role to rousing success, but you can’t help feeling guilty laughing at such a stifled character, lacking the rich character development of Moran’s Vanya or DeBonis’s Sonia, relying instead on a trope of Greek tragedy and mythology. Durang mixes apples and oranges to add this character, and it’s never apparent how the character fits into the modern Chekhovian world that she manipulates with her powers. Nevertheless, Wood has a high command for physical comedy and her expressive face and vibrant voice keep the character from falling flat.
We are warned by Cassandra that someone is coming, and not long after, we meet the third “sister,” Masha (Candy Buckley), the rich and glamorous movie star who gave up the country home and its domestic and familial duties in order to pursue her acting career in Hollywood. Buckley shakes the most in her performance, never quite settling into the hysterics of Masha, and struggling to match Moran and DeBonis in their command of Durang’s off-kilter dialogue. Her age shows instantly, despite her killer body, and we are exposed far too early that she is past her prime and her days are numbered. She brings along her hunky boytoy, Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks), to arousing effect. Weaks attempts to make Spike a fully-realized character and person, but he’s stifled by Durang’s emphasis on Spike’s youthful demeanor and Adonis-like figure. Spike is often the butt of jokes meant to inspire a quip by the other more sophisticated characters, which feels unauthentic in Chekhov’s world, though not in our own. In a surprising turn of events, Allison Layman’s Nina is a refreshing breath of fresh air, the perfect personification of Chekhov’s The Seagull while creating a crisp individualism for the character. Layman makes her presence not the annoying idyllic of youth, but the doe-eyed wonder of a new age.
The older generation, Vanya and Sonia and Masha, form the play’s dramatic trio, and the conflict among the siblings feels true, a restlessness of mediocrity and maturity unlike many of Durang’s prior works. His characters, like Chekhov’s, worry that they are perhaps beyond their primes, and that they have few opportunities remaining to fulfill whatever hopeless dreams of Moscow (just kidding) or otherwise. Luckily, a knowledge of Chekhov is not a prerequisite for enjoying this play. Durang peppers his play with just enough references and acknowledgements to his humorous predecessor, which gives the educated audience an additional laugh but not at the expense of isolating the masses.
However, Durang does manage to isolate the audience in a few distinct ways. Unlike his other ways which rely on broad humor and zany characters, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a mature play for mature audiences. Younger generations will still appreciate the play (especially if they understand and appreciate Chekhov’s humor of unfulfilled lives) and the humor still appeals on multiple levels, but there were moments of generational gaps. Late in the play, as Vanya rants and raves about the loss of a way of life, you can see the younger generation (ironically) reach for their cellphones. You see, my generation doesn’t want to hear the gripes of the older generation complain about how the world has changed and the loss of a way of life. Don’t long for a nostalgia that your generation willingly helped bring into existence. Don’t blame my generation for accepting that you gave us. /rant.
Director Jessica Stone coaxes her actors to find the humanity in each of their roles, but she also keeps the play moving at a steady and clip pace, suitable for a Durang comedy. We don’t have time to relish or reflect on the sadness of Vanya’s single gay (and stifled) life, or Sonia’s pathetic existence tied to her brother, or Masha’s uncertain future as an aging starlet in a youth-centered world. It is a wonderful homage to her mentor Nicholas Martin, an extraordinary interpreter of new and classic works. Stone assembles a talented production team to make the play come alive. Scenic Designer David Korins builds Vanya and Sonia and Masha’s house almost brick by brick to magnificent effect, which is beautifully realized in harmonious lighting design by David Weiner. The costume design by Gabriel Berry is effective and flattering, and I did appreciate the sleek black Calvin Klein briefs on Spike, and Sonia’s flowing gown for the costume ball, however, it felt stifled by the Broadway production, mirroring instead of embellishing. The production, overall, felt like a safe entry into Chekhov and Durang, never pushing too far away from the mainstream and instead relying on the aging theatre population’s grumblings and nerves.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a sweet, painful and funny jaunt through the hop and regret and the family with whom you live and love. However, unlike Durang’s edgier work of his youth, you don’t feel like you are shaped by the characters’ rollicking world, instead, disjointed by the middle-aged despair. While the actors and director do a fine job of telling the truth in this beautiful homage to Chekhov and its modern relevance, the truth feels like a safe escape, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike seems like a safe neighborhood play not meant to excite your curiosity, but instead soothe your nerves. With such benign playwriting, Durang’s newest hit is certain to stick around the neighborhood for a while.