BWW Reviews: Alley Theatre's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is Uneven but Entertaining
Christopher Durang was the talk of 2013 because of his gloomy new comedy VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE. Following a successful 2012 World Premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, the show moved to the Lincoln Center's Off-Broadway theatre the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater before transitioning to Broadway's John Golden Theatre. Both the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs were wildly victorious as well, earning numerous award nominations, a handful of awards, and many positive reviews. When the Alley Theatre announced the show for this season, anticipation was high. Sadly, Houston audiences aren't quite getting the show they expected.
Christopher Durang's comedy plays on Chekhovian themes and pulls inspiration from the works of Anton Chekov, but you don't have to be familiar with Chekov to enjoy the show. At the top of the play, we are introduced to Vanya and Sonia, two middle-aged siblings living uneventful and unfulfilling lives in their family's farmhouse (which debatably presides over a cherry orchard) in Buck County, Pennsylvania. Their movie star sister, Masha, and her boy toy boyfriend, Spike, drop in for a visit and to attend a costume party at the Dorothy Parker house just up the road. Masha also plans to surreptitiously sell the home her siblings live in because she is tired of paying for its upkeep. Sibling rivalry erupts as Sonia and Masha bicker about costumes and the threat of losing the family home adds thematic melancholy to the comedy.
Jonathan Moscone directs the play, keeping the action moving along with decent pacing. Last night's audience, and I assume each successive group, were mostly absorbed by the tale unfolding before them. Some scenes, especially Vanya's explosive monologue late in Act II, felt like they could have been delivered with a little more urgency and speed. For example, I feel that the climatic monologue could have been performed as if Vanya's brain couldn't quite keep up with the words pouring from his mouth. Yet, the way the monologue is delivered is appreciated, garnering some enthusiastic applause, and it remains one of the most memorable moments of the evening.
Stepping into the coveted role made famous by Sigourney Weaver, Josie de Guzman completely wastes an opportunity to shine as Masha. The words constructed by Christopher Durang for the character indicate that she is entirely self-absorbed, indulgent, and unaware of her personal decline. Unfortunately, Josie de Guzman plays Masha as a ditzy nitwit who seems completely clueless about everything. There is no bite. There is no sting. Instead of being self-centered because of her stardom, Josie de Guzman's Masha is self-centered because she is just too naïve and dumb to notice that other people exist outside of her. At one point Masha exaggerates, "On stage, you are in a sort of wooden box in front of people who are looking at you and you must speak more loudly. So that they can hear you." In many ways, the audience feels that Josie de Guzman, as Masha, just speaks loudly and makes faces, turning Masha into this cartoon of an actress with a disappointing transformation late in Act II. Sitting through Josie de Guzman's performance last night, I found myself growing exasperated by her signature mugging to the audience and becoming increasingly more jealous of every single person who witnessed Sigourney Weaver in this role, since I did not see it.
Jeffrey Bean's endearing Vanya is nicely sardonic with an innate cynicism. In many ways his performance made me think of an embittered, middle-aged version of Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane. His interactions with Nina are tender, giving the production a lot of heart. There is also a tangible chemistry between Jeffrey Bean as Vanya and Sharon Lockwood as Sonia.
Playing the impressionable Sonia, Sharon Lockwood delivers the strongest performance of the three leads. Proclaiming herself to be bi-polar, Sharon Lockwood's Sonia is wonderfully unpredictable, hysterical, and sometimes vulnerable. Sharon Lockwood also steals the show with her hilariously imperfect impersonation of Maggie Smith. Whether throwing a mug of coffee at the wall or describing herself as a wild turkey, her zany Sonia easily earns more laughs than Josie de Guzman's Masha, making Sharon Lockwood the unlikely and unexpected star of the play.
As Cassandra, inspired by the Cassandra of Greek mythology, Rachael Holmes brings the house down time and time again. Dancing to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" and delivering slews of ignored prophecies with appealing urban attitude, Rachel Holmes earned the most showstopping moments of thunderous applause and hearty, sidesplitting guffaws. Never missing an opportunity to own the stage, Rachel Holmes takes full advantage of her character in this farcical play to create a character audiences will be loath to forget.
The chiseled and hunky Spike is perfectly portrayed by Jay Sullivan, who makes the character delightfully moronic. Jay Sullivan's Spike accepts his role as and even revels in being eye-candy for objectification. He shamelessly flirts with everyone who shows the smallest interest in him, creating an ebullient portrait of narcissism. Once Nina says, "He's so attractive. Except for his personality, of course," the audience can't help but explode with laughter because we've been thinking the same thing all night.
The effervescent Sarah Nealis is wondrously sweet and innocent as the play's breath of optimism, Nina. In the darkest moments of Vanya's life, Nina's youthful ignorance and sincerity successfully encourages him to premiere his off-beat play. Her heart is a sparkling ray of hope in the production, bringing the light of youth and its indefatigable confidence in every life being meaningful to the other characters.
Douglas W. Schmidt's Scenic Design creates a fantastically whimsical stone farmhouse and it's morning room on the Alley's Hubbard Stage. The Disneyfied ideal of homey, picturesque, and idyllic set is wholly inviting, bright, and comforting.
The Alley Theatre's hotly anticipated production of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE successfully entertains audiences, but is an uneven production of one the most celebrated new plays. Jeffrey Bean, Sharon Lockwood, Jay Sullivan, Rachael Holmes, and Sarah Nealis all do exceptional jobs bailing out the water of Josie de Guzman's sinking ship in their performances, which keeps the production afloat. For those of us who followed the show with rapt attention, we leave smiling but also feeling cheated.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, produced by the Alley Theatre, runs on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002, now through June 15, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.alleytheatre.org or call (713) 220-5700.
Photos courtesy of Alley Theatre.
Josie de Guzman as Masha. Photo by Jann Whaley.