Christopher Durang has been good to off-Broadway, providing it with a string of well-received comedic plays — and off-Broadway has responded with eager audiences and critical acceptance. Now fate has launched Durang into the heady, rarified and expensive atmosphere of Broadway.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike began at the prestigious McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2012, moved to off-Broadway's Lincoln Center later that year, selling out, and then opened on Broadway in 2013. The investors recouped funding in less than six months, making Durang a "playwright of interest" to Broadway investors. The comedy won the 2013 Tony Award as Best New Play, along with a barrel of similar trophies, ensuring not only money for investors but street cred as well.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a family drama that borrows the names of some of its characters, and some of its themes, from the works of Anton Chekhov. Masha is a much-married (five times) Hollywood star who supports her siblings Vanya and Sonia in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. For a visit there, she brings along her current boy toy, Spike, who is extremely fit, with a remarkably low level of body fat, easily verified since Spike tends to remove his clothing.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Through June 15. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700, www.alleytheatre.org.
The central theme of Chekhov's masterpiece The Cherry Orchard is the dwindling of Russian upper-class landowners in the face of energetic middle-class commerce, and the potential loss of a famous orchard to developers, as well as the loss of the estate house itself. Masha owns the family residence, and plans to sell it, thus echoing this theme.
Chekhov's plays are character-driven, and so is this comedy, as Durang has created vivid characters: Sonia is adopted, neurotic and shy, and Vanya is gay though not effeminate, and both are recluses, living out sheltered lives in the family home. They have stayed there to care for their parents, including through the end of their lives as Alzheimer's sufferers. The parents were active in community theater, the rationale for naming their children after Chekhovian characters. Familiarity with the works of Chekhov is not required to appreciate this play, since the names are there simply for a laugh and to amuse the playwright.
There is another reason to forget Chekhov, as something curious and fascinating, occurs onstage: Boy toy Spike, who might have been simply a minor comic character, easily digested and then dismissed, instead takes over the play. Besides his physical charisma, Spike is invariably cheerful and charming and bounds like a gazelle. He is not brilliant, but, with his gifts, it hardly matters. He holds the stage whenever on it, and when he's absent, the other characters can't stop talking about him. Resident Alley actor Jay Sullivan portrays him, and could not be better.
Durang provides comedic arias that enrich the play, like plums in a pudding. Spike is a would-be actor who was almost cast in a reality television series, Entourage 2, and he acts out his long audition piece, a brilliant bit of comedic writing — Durang at his best — and performed with invigorating intensity.
The cleaning woman, Cassandra, is played by Rachael Holmes; she, like her namesake from Greek mythology, has the gift of seeing the future but not being believed. Holmes provides rich body language and an enchanting self-assertiveness, and is delightful. She practices voodoo, and Act Two opens with her hard at it, sticking pins into a doll dressed like Masha, with marked success. It's a wonderful passage.
The third aria is a long, impassioned speech by Vanya, portrayed by Jeffrey Bean in a compelling performance that anchors the play. Vanya is the peacekeeper in the family, patient, placid and accepting of his lot in life, but he becomes enraged when a reading of an early play by him is interrupted by Spike on a cellphone. This speech is the heart of the play, and an eloquent tirade against contemporary life; it is fueled by nostalgia for the past, black-and-white television and puppet shows for children. And, chiefly, for postage stamps that have to be licked.
The content is a bit ridiculous, as is Durang's intent, but the point is not its intellectual depth but rather that it is a demand for civility, not a plea. It's a scathing indictment of those who won't provide it. The writing is powerful, and Bean's delivery is memorable indeed.
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Masha is portrayed by the incomparable Josie de Guzman, who is captivating in Act One and brightens the stage with her entrance, a much-needed brightening as the opening breakfast scene with Sonia and Vanya conveys adroitly some needed exposition but fails to click. In Act Two, however, de Guzman is required to weep copiously, and this is played for parody, or I should say overplayed, since it robs Masha of dignity. She is permitted to regain her authority in later passages, and to show some human warmth in the play's sentimental ending, where the bonding of family is celebrated.
Sharon Lockwood plays Sonia, and the role is that of caterpillar/butterfly, since at the beginning she is dour and whining but later dons a costume for a neighbor's party, dressing as the evil Queen in the Snow White legend, and becomes a vivacious, outgoing personality. Lockwood does tend, inexplicably, to stop facing Vanya in some of their early dialogue and to move downstage to address the audience, an old-fashioned style of acting that modern directors usually persuade actors to avoid. Lockwood is excellent in her butterfly mode.
Nina is a fan hoping to meet Masha; she's young, beautiful and sweet, and Sarah Nealis delivers all these qualities in abundance. The scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt is terrific, all books and stone, some memorabilia of the departed parents, and grassy plots that engender belief as they desperately need tending. The comedy is extremely well-directed by Jonathan Moscone, with the exceptions noted above, and he keeps the pace appropriate and the interest unflagging.
This is a triumphant production, made all the more fascinating by Sullivan's performance, which inverts the expected balance of power. If Spike stands for the future, it may be exciting indeed — I hope Durang writes a sequel: "The Further Adventures of Spike." Durang has delivered to us a comedy with insights, interesting characters and moments of pure hilarious fun, and one can only hope that this high-water mark of comedy continues and that Broadway sustains its judicious welcome.