BWW Reviews: Tony Winner VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is a Revelation at the Taper
Christopher Durang loves to take a somewhat placid environment and turn it upside down, inside out. What doesn't happen matters just has much if not more than what does and the characters let out their feelings at the slightest provocation. Sound like it's right out of Anton Chekhov? When Sonia gives coffee to her brother Vanya and he seems displeased with it, she takes the cup away from him in anger and throws it against the wall. It's not the coffee comment that has upset her, it's the way she feels inside, at the overall way her brother neglects her, takes her kindness for granted. She's sad and is not afraid to tell him so. Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike, now onstage at the Mark Taper Forum and last year's Tony winner for Best Play, is one hilarious ride from moment to moment with wonderfully surprising twists and an eclectic mix of characters that would make any world dysfunctional. Dysfunctional is the new normal, and that's what makes Durang's work shine. Akin to drama queens, misery forms their best company. It's as if everyone were totally smashed...they say and do what they feel; they're so brutally honest, you can't stop laughing.
Vanya (Mark Blum) and adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) live in Bucks County Pennsylvania in a farm house paid for by their estranged working actress/sister Masha (Christine Ebersole). They are the children of professor parents who insisted on naming them after Chekhov characters. Only Sonia is adopted, and her relationship with Masha has always been strained. Masha pays a surprise visit and announces that she is going to sell the house, which upsets Vanya and Sonia to no end. It's their home; they do not work, and have no place to go. Masha has money, but claims it's getting too expensive to keep the place. So it sets off a battle of wits between Sonia and Masha. Sonia is alone, has wasted her life, with no husband or prospect of it. She calls herself a wild turkey. Masha, on the other hand, has lived, and continues to do so, with Spike in tow, a young studly TV actor, who is less than half her age. (David Hull) Vanya is gay, is attracted to Spike's shredding his clothes at the drop of a hat, which really rattles Masha, and when Spike brings young Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) in for a brief visit, it sets Masha's jealousy ablaze. Masha is going to a costume party in the neighborhood as Disney's Snow White and invites Vanya and Sonia to go with her, but only if they dress as her entourage, the dwarfs. Sonia finds her chance to upstage Masha and buys a stunning sequined costume worn by Maggie Smith in California Suite, who, she claims, played Snow White's Wicked Queen.
Durang has carefully structured the play so that we see everyone leaving for the party and then returning. The night becomes victorious for poor Sonia, but a disaster for Masha. The sisters battle. Vanya has written a play based on the one written by Constantin in Chekhov's The Seagull and everyone participates, including Cassandra (Shalita Grant), Vanya and Sonia's Jamaican maid who is prone to voodoo and sticking pins into tiny dolls, like...Snow White, for example...
The themes of desperation and loneliness, the characters' associations to the Chekhovian characters whose names they bear, the long monologues each delivers and the unsettling events and how they affect everyone are very Chekhovian in nature, closest to The Three Sisters. make no mistake about it. Durang wants us to see the parallels, and what he has managed to create through all of it, is one delightfully insightful piece that is so funny and entertaining you rarely see where it's going or what it proves. You get it without having to think about it... that's great playwriting.
Needless to say, the cast is sublime. Nielsen wins our hearts as Sonia. She's unabashedly real. She does and says what she feels and we really root for her. Ebersole is glorious as Masha. Her jealousy and anger build little by little and her second act revelations are lovely to behold. Blum's Vanya is a quiet character until Act II where he unleashes a monologue that rips the play apart. He misses the past, shared memories. Tweets, twitters, texting do not turn him on. He used to lick postage stamps, and that is his turn-on. How Chekhovian, this work ethic! He cannot relate to Cable's Entourage or newfangled Hollywood, but he can relate to the uneventful Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and the woes of child actor Tommy Kirk, who was fired by Disney for being gay. This is a brilliant monologue that turns the play on its axis and brings down the house.Yeager does a fine job in bringing the joy and innocence of youth to the fore as Nina, Grant is a scream as silly, psychic Cassandra and Hull is terrific as the young, vane dodo Spike, who doesn't have a clue beyond the flex of his muscles. David Hyde Pierce, who played Vanya in New York, has directed with a sharp, keen eye to detail, following the original Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin. David Korins' set design of the living room/porch of the farm house, which overlooks the pond, is splendidly vivid.
This is a wild and bizarre play that will undoubtedly shake you up a little, make you laugh and reflect a lot. Just like Durang's Sister Mary Ignacious Explains It All For You, when you left the play you found it hard to forget and realized your mind was unexpectedly opened to surprising possibilities. Such should be the case as well with Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike. As great dramedy, it finds its place in our crazy world and speaks to generations about the urgency of a shared past and its link to a more solidified future.