Morning coffee with Vanya (Bob Maddox) and Sonia ( Suzanne King).
Morning coffee with Vanya (Bob Maddox) and Sonia ( Suzanne King).
Photo courtesy Theatre Southwest

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: A Wistful, Raucous Farce

The set-up:
I'm going out a limb with this one, and history may prove me wrong, but I don't think so. And anyway, who'll be around to tell me I'm wrong? So here goes...

Christopher Durang's wistful, raucous farce Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2012) is one of theater's crown jewels, and will glisten even brighter the more years go by. It's a stunner of an audience-friendly comedy, a hit off-Broadway, a hit on Broadway (winning a 2013 Tony Award as Best Play), and a continuing hit everywhere else it's performed. The Alley as recently as last season performed it to acclaim, and I'm pleased to announce that Theatre Southwest's production, while a whole lot smaller and intimate than the downtown version, is just as invigorating, moving, and funny as hell.

The execution:
Better known for his wickedly subversive streak in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You, The Marriage of Betty and Boo, and Betty's Summer Vacation, Durang softens his barbs as he merrily riffs on Russian master playwright Anton Chekhov (you know, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard – those late 19th century classics that deal with ennui, detachment, and futility among the faded aristocracy). It's not necessary to know what his sources are, the play works by itself, it just turns a bit more catty appreciating his second-hand Chekhov.

With unfailing aim, Durang's arrows still hit squarely, if a bit softer on impact than in his earlier work. Using Chekhov fuzzes Durang's blacker moments, and Vanya et al glows with sweet nostalgia and gentleness. Hit wit hasn't dulled, nor has his gay sensibility lessened, however, and this comedy has plenty of Durang's patented bite and acidic tongue. This might be Chekhov with a kick, a loopy spoof that could be a warm heartbreaker if it weren't so damned funny and knowing.

There's a surprising monologue in Act II by closeted Vanya (a sublimely rumpled, un-ironed Bob Maddox) who's reached boiling point by the know-nothingness of Masha's empty-headed boytoy Spike, which begins, “We used to lick stamps...” He goes on a wild rant about the soothing '50s and the universality of that era's pop culture, covering everything from Davy Crockett's coonskin caps, the iconic puppet show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, the antics of ventriloquist Señor Wences; the TV homilies of catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen;  and Vanya's youthful obsession with former Disney gay teen star Tommy Kirk. A plea and excoriation, it's a showstopper of a monologue, and probably will be used by acting students for an audition piece any day now, but it's replete with a profound, thoughtful whimsy that brings tears to the eyes. Wondrously exasperated and blustery, Maddox plays this scene as if on a Stradivarius. Like a Chekhovian protagonist who can only dream of changing his life, or going to Moscow, or who sits idle while the family's beloved cherry orchard is hacked to the ground, Durang's Vanya pipes up and blows steam. His explosion, for which he apologies, is his cry from the heart, yet he, too, knows how futile his dreams are. It's too late for change, its already happened without him.

Frumpy Vanya and adopted sister Sonia (a dazed and lovingly befuddled Suzanne King) exist in their pajamas. Having watched over their dying parents, they've never left the family house. Financially supported by their movie star sister Masha (a comically prickly Nora Hahn) who never visits or telephones, they're comfortable in their shabby chic farmhouse in Pennsylvania, bickering over coffee or waiting for the arrival of the blue heron at the backyard pond. They're content to do nothing, for life has passed them by. On hand is their housekeeper Cassandra (a naturally fresh Taushell McClure), prone like her mythic namesake to make dire predictions that no one believes.

Masha arrives, or should I say makes an “entrance,” with current lover in tow, hunky Spike (Ryan Burkhart, trim, fit, and wide-eyed with egotistic cluelessness). She's here for a costume party at the swanky neighbors. To make amends for her past aloof behavior, she announces they're all going. The hermits are aghast.

And by the way, she's selling the house. Her career, never one of great merit, is on the skids and she needs the money. This news hits the siblings like the proverbial ton of bricks. What are they to do? Where shall they go? Masha couldn't care less, she's got Spike, who while out running has met the beautiful girl next door, the innocent and ever hopeful Nina (a charming Helen Rios). Masha's carefully applied makeup starts to crack.

With a plethora of pop culture references, Durang sows his wild oats in fairly neat rows, and charm drips from this play like sap. Director Jay Menchaca keeps everyone in ping pong ball mode, never forgetting to punch up a surefire laugh-getter or lovingly linger over the autumnal glow. The cast plays together beautifully; these three could very well be relatives. Compared to the Alley's plush realism, Theatre Southwest's production is Cratchit-size – a wicker settee, a small table, another chair, and an archway of twigs and vines for the forlorn “orchard.” It's simple in the extreme, but it works. Durang's wisecracks fill in the holes, and the actors fill in the heart.

The verdict:
Contemporary comedy doesn't get any better. Wise and witty, Durang's neo-classic (I predict like Cassandra) will make you laugh while you think. Fondly remembering Howdy Doody won't do you any harm either.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through October 3 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $16-$18.

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