By Pat Launer
Got Chekhov? Christopher Durang does.
The acclaimed American playwright has a fascination with the legendary Russian dramatist. The latest of Durang’s famously quirky works, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” won five prestigious awards for Best Play of 2013, including the Tony. It was hailed as hilarious. I wish it were funnier. Maybe it’s just me.
As always, Durang is literate and clever. The three regret-filled, middle-aged siblings in this Bucks County, PA, family have names taken from Anton Chekhov’s most renowned works. Their parents were professors who dabbled in community theater. So they wistfully (though also prophetically) named their children Vanya and Sonia (from “Uncle Vanya”) and Masha (from “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” though Durang’s character more closely resembles Madame Arkadina in “The Seagull”). But wait! There’s more.
The weekly house cleaner at the family homestead is named Cassandra (from Greek mythology and Aeschulus’ tragedy, ‘Agamemnon’). This Cassandra, too, has visions and premonitions of disaster that no one believes — though they often come true. Oh, and the neighbors’ niece? Nina, a wannabe actress with name and character borrowed directly from “The Seagull.”
Familiarity with the classics isn’t necessary to your appreciation of the wacky goings-on, but it sure helps. There are tons of cultural and literary references (from “Sunset Boulevard” to “A Streetcar Named Desire” to Neil Simon’s “California Suite”). No prior knowledge required to understand Spike, also an aspiring thespian (originally named Vlad – the Impaler, get it?), who flaunts his ultra-buff body for all and sundry whenever possible, especially seeming to taunt gay, repressed Vanya. Spike spends a good deal of time in his scant bikini underwear. And though he’s Masha’s boytoy du jour (she’s been married five times), he’s attracted to young Nina, but turns out to be in love with Hootie-Pie. Don’t even ask. Spike noisily eats candy, does flashy pushups, flexes his pecs and sends texts. No works of literature have been harmed in his creation.
Masha, a successful star of B movies, is the only one in the family who works. She pays for the other two to sit home and lament their lives, after having seen their parents through illness, dementia and death. Masha swirls into the ancestral home (a parallel of events in “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Seagull”), declaring that she’s going to sell the house, to the horror of Vanya and Sonia, who’ve lived there their whole lives.
Disappointment and disenchantment provide a through-line. Or, as Sonia so aptly puts it, “If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would’ve had nothing to write about.”
What Durang is writing about is aging, change (or lack thereof, or lack of acceptance thereof), the passage of time and the inevitable lifelong pileup of regrets. The play is definitely geared for Boomers and beyond. In the second act, Vanya has a five-minute rant about all the things he misses from the 1950s, from licking stamps to Señor Wences (from “The Ed Sullivan Show”). The (aging) audience howls.
Though there’s little new in his list of reminiscences, he does make the comical point that “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” featured a humdrum family that had no adventures whatsoever. True, that.
Another soliloquy features Cassandra’s crazy visions (Haneefah Wood is quite comical in this scene). Vanya’s long-hidden play (a riff on the disastrous, experimental drama penned by young, depressive Konstantin in “The Seagull”) is a dark, dystopian post-Apocalyptic fantasy in which the main character is a molecule.
But alas, clever doesn’t mean funny. Smart isn’t necessarily side-splitting.
Still, the Old Globe production is extremely well done, and finely directed by Jessica Stone, in the style of the original director, her friend and colleague Nicholas Martin (who was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for “Vanya and Sonia” last year and was scheduled to direct at the Globe, too, but sadly passed away in April). The pace is lively and the cast deftly inhabits their madcap roles. The acting is decidedly over the top, but that’s what the script calls for. Literally.
The design work is superlative. The set, a gorgeous, wood-and-stone affair, nestled among lush foliage (David Korins), is magnificently lit (David Weiner) and the costumes are a hoot (Gabriel Berry). There are Disney cartoon getups for a costume party that take up a lot of text-time for little payoff, though it’s amusing to see Snow White, Prince Charming and a dwarf or two cavorting around the stage.
After all the dark self-evaluation and endless self-pity, hope sort of reigns at the end. A bit of a too-neat finish, but as Chekhov always said of himself, Durang writes comedies.
So, knock yourself out with guffaws. I chuckled a few times, but the much-anticipated hilarity eluded me.
- “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through June 22 in the Old Globe Theatre.
- Performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. There is a Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m. on June 11, but no matinee on Saturday, June 14.
- Ticket prices start at $29 and are available at 619-23-GLOBE or online at www.theoldglobe.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.