| Stage |

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: A Comedy With Insights and Great Abs

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The setup:

Chistopher 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 atmosphere of Broadway. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike moved from off-Broadway's Lincoln Center, where it sold out, to open on Broadway in 2013, winning that year's Tony Award as Best New Play, along with a barrel of similar trophies. The execution:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a family drama which 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, PA. 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 documented, as Spike tends to remove his clothing.

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 their endings as Alzheimer sufferers. The parents were active in community theater, the rationale for naming their children after Chekhovian characters.

Something curious and fascinating occurs on stage: 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, charming, and bounds like a gazelle. He is not brilliant, but, with his gifts, it hardly matters. He holds the stage, and when 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 piece 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, an enchanting self-assertiveness, and is delightful. She practices voodoo, and Act Two opens with her hard at it, sticking pins into doll dressed like Masha, with marked success. It is 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 peace-keeper in the family, patient, placid, and accepting of his lot in life, but 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 is an eloquent tirade against contemporary life. It is a demand for civility, not a plea, a scathing indictment of those who won't provide it. It is powerful writing, and Bean's delivery is memorable indeed.

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. Masha is permitted 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, as 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.

Nina is a fan hoping to meet Masha; she is young, beautiful and sweet, and Sarah Nealis delivers on all cylinders. The scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt is terrific, all books and stone, some memorabilia of the departed parents, and glassy plots that engender belief as they desperately need tending. The comedy is well-directed by Jonathan Moscone, who keeps the pace appropriate and the interest unflagging.

The verdict:

Christopher Durang has given us a comedy with insights, interesting characters, and moments of pure hilarious fun. This is a high-water mark of comedy. See it. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through June 15 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Street, information and ticketing at 713-220-5700 or contact www.alleytheatre.org.

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