BWW Reviews: First Crack at a New Comic Classic: VANYA AND SONIA at Center Stage
It is gratifying that Christopher Durang's latest comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which is assuredly going to be produced in time by every community theater company in the country, gets its Baltimore premiere in style at Center Stage, as a sort of reference production by which other local ones can be gauged. The show, which rolled out over the last two years in regional test runs, then at the Lincoln Center, and then on Broadway, where it closed last year, is in joint production here with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The fun seems effortless; with a solid cast and wonderful direction by Eric Rosen at Center Stage, of course nothing is going to go wrong. But I'm willing to bet it would take a lot of trying to do this well-made play badly; I expect we'll find out.
The conceit is that a Chekhovian family situation could as easily spring from the soil of contemporary Bucks County, PA as from that of the prerevolutionary Russian countryside. There three adult siblings, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha (Bruce Nelson, Barbara Walsh, and Susan Rome) named by literature professor parents with (obviously) more of a penchant for allusiveness than good sense, live somnolent and under-eventful lives in a stately but undercapitalized exurban home. Well, two of them do. Masha went off to become a glamorous movie star and supports her siblings, visiting them just occasionally. (The parents are now deceased.)
The play takes place during one of Masha's infrequent visits, disturbing the decidedly Chekhovian atmosphere of regret Sonia feels keenly, and Vanya perhaps a little less so, over not having "lived." Masha, by contrast, has "lived," if maybe a smidge too long, as becomes apparent when she brings a boy-toy named Spike in her train (Zachary Andrews). (Although he too has a Russian name if you dig deep enough; he's actually named Vlad.) The moment Spike takes off his shirt and strips down to his undies (as he rapidly does), two things become apparent: a) Masha is in denial about her age, and b) Andrews must spend a couple of hours a day working out. (I was reminded of the moment the marginally more ripped Sebastian Stan went shirtless in a recent revival of Picnic on Broadway.) In the course of the play, Masha is going to have to come clean with herself about her little denial problem.
Help - for Vanya and Sonia with their empty lives, for Masha with her denial - comes in the form of the two other characters. One is dewy neighbor Nina (of course she'd be named Nina) (Emily Peterson), so awestruck by Masha's celebrity and by what she interprets with only partial accuracy as everyone else's niceness that she is proof against the bitchiness and insanity that the siblings generate. The other is the sole character whose name comes from a different frame of literary reference, the zany and somewhat prophetic cleaning lady Cassandra. Kerry Warren is incandescent in that role; of course the play is not a competition, but if it were, her over-the-top portrayal, sliding constantly from frenzy to matter-of-factness to solemn, eye-rolling intimations of doom, would win the palm. As her name implies, she is the predictor of ominous fates whom no one ever believes - which is just as well much of the time because she gets so many details wrong. She is also a dab hand at voodoo. Unlike Hamlet, where the play-within-the-play is the thing, here the thing is an offstage costume ball, which provides an occasion for physical comedy, fashion jokes, and a plausible catalyst for the sort of happy ending Durang bestows upon his characters.
As the ending suggests, Christopher Durang seems to have mellowed. The rage that informed his earlier plays Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo is not on display here, which is one of the reasons I predict a community theater apotheosis for this work (no one being perturbed anymore by a couple of salty expressions hither and yon). While no character escapes ridicule, at bottom this is a celebration of an extended family in all its flawed diversity. Because this is the theme, Vanya and Sonia feels more the way You Can't Take It With You or Ah, Wilderness! do than the way Mary Ignatius does.
The only thing likely to keep this play from becoming a permanent fixture of the American stage is its extreme topicality. For instance, a repeated joke is that Spike's claim to fame is that he was nearly cast in a television series called Entourage 2. In twenty years, mostly only oldsters will get the reference. Indeed, the one weak moment in the play is an Act Two rant by Vanya against modernity, which will suffer over time as the modern things he doesn't like become yesteryear's playthings.
The speech doesn't even work on its own terms. It starts out promisingly, with Vanya properly if a little excessively incensed at Spike's "multitasking" with his cellphone while Vanya's fledgling effort as a playwright is being read aloud (and thus Vanya's soul is being bared). But Vanya's bile at bad cellphone manners comically degenerates quickly into a paean to the lost art of licking postage stamps, and then goes on and on. We get the point much more quickly than Durang evidently supposes. And we lose sympathy with Vanya's fogeydom as the postage stamp monologue proceeds. It's not Bruce Nelson's fault; he is a performer with great timing. If it were possible to keep the speech from curdling, he could do it. He can't.
But that is a minor carp. Whatever may happen to the play in years to come, today's playgoers are absolutely going to love it. It's a typically impeccable Center Stage affair - great sets, lighting, costumes, direction, acting - at the disposal of a simply hilarious show. Not to be missed.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, directed by Eric Rosen, through May 25, 2014, at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202, www.centerstage.org, 410-986-4000. Tickets $10-$69. Occasional adult language