Sep. 28 Syracuse Stage: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

From left to right: Larry Paulsen (as Vanya), Nance Williamson (as Masha), Dori Legg (as Sonia), and Ben Chase (as Spike) in the Syracuse Stage production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Photo: Michael Davis)

Syracuse Stage’s ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ keeps the laughs coming

Christopher Durang takes the audience on a wild romp in this Tony Award-winning Chekhov mash-up

By Barbara Haas

At one point in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Christopher Durang comedy that opened Syracuse Stage’s 2014-15 season, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

Vanya, memorably played by Larry Paulsen, had just delivered a huge monologue (a tirade, really) about the modern world of text messaging and cable TV — where somewhere among its 785 channels you’re sure to find one that agrees with what you already think. “Before there were answering machines,” Paulsen’s Vanya says with great bitterness and stressing every word, “we had to call people back.”

Vanya, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Russian literature knows, is one of the characters in a Chekhov play. And if you’ve seen a few of Chekhov’s plays, you might hear the resonance in this speech of a recurrent theme: nostalgia for a rapidly disappearing world when people were more connected to one another.

And certainly you would see in Vanya and his two sisters, Sonia  (Dori Legg) and Masha (Nance Williamson), despairing people with wasted lives typical of those you think of as typical of Chekhov plays.  Durang himself had said that his play takes Chekhov’s characters and themes and “puts them in a blender.” Then he sends the whole mix over the top. One senses that Durang had a marvelous time writing this play.

Directing the Syracuse Stage production is Marcela Lorca, who has directed many plays at the renowned Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The three plays she has done for Syracuse Stage couldn’t be more different from one another: the musical “Caroline, or Change,” the drama “Scorched,” and now Durang’s outrageously absurd comedy.

The premise of the play in itself is funny. Vanya and his sisters were given their names by parents uncommonly enamored with community theater. For the past 15 years Vanya and Sonia have been holed up in an isolated house in Pennsylvania caring for their elderly, ultimately demented (and now deceased) parents. We find out about all this, by the way, as the two aging siblings are in the midst of an increasingly ludicrous argument about who should serve the morning coffee — a tiff that ends when a mug is flung against the wall.  Durang knows his craft, slipping in all the information we need to know without our noticing.  Not for nothing is he Co-Director of the Playwrights Program at the Juilliard School of Drama.

While these two siblings have been moldering in the countryside, their more glamorous sister Masha has been making a name for herself as an actress. It’s not exactly the career she had been hoping for. She longed to play her namesake in The Three Sisters, but instead got typecast in films as a nymphomaniac serial killer.

Nonetheless, the sweet young aspiring actress from next door, Nina (Midori Iwana) is thrilled to meet her. Nina isn’t one of the family, but her name (as well as her ingénue character) comes straight out of Chekhov. Even though she is playing a molecule, Midori Iwama is quite charming in her lead role in the play Vanya has written about cataclysmic disasters that will result from climate change.

Cassandra, the housekeeper (Lisa Renee Pitts), comes from the Greek — not Russian — theater and is prone to making predictions like an oracle.  When Masha threatens to sell the family house for which she foots all the bills, Pitts really gets serious and makes use of the voodoo skills of her own origins. With West Indian skirt over jeans, she sticks pins into a Masha-like doll, mixing comments about the soft housing market with the incantation “I do not want to sell the house.”

Ben Chase (as Spike) and Midori Iwama (as Nina) in the Syracuse Stage production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (photo: Michael Davis)

And then there’s Spike, Masha’s young boy toy.  Spike is one of those buff roles that call for an actor who has put in lots of hours at the gym. Ben Chase clearly has done so. Spike has a habit of stripping down to his underwear. When Masha suggests he do a reverse strip tease and put his clothes back on, Chase obliges with a very funny, erotically suggestive routine.

The center of the play is a costume party that we don’t see on stage at all, only the preparations for it and its aftermath. Nance Williamson is at her best costumed as Snow White — furiously insisting that the others come costumed in supporting roles as dwarfs. For once sister Sonia stands up for herself, wearing instead a ball gown that’s supposed to suggest Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars. (Apparently she was a great success.) In a remarkable monologue by Dori Legg, we see one side of a phone conversation in which Sonia agrees to a date with a partygoer who was taken in by her act.

If this is all beginning to sound a bit wild, it is after all a play by the author of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Marriage of Betty and Boo, and other satirical and absurdist plays.

The usual trajectory of a Christopher Durang comedy is to start out Off-Broadway, get moved to Broadway proper, and then continue to find legs in regional and community theater and campus productions. Durang has been writing successful plays since the 1980s, but he’s now at the height of his popularity. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was commissioned by Princeton’s McCarter Theater. It then moved to Lincoln Center for a long, sold-out run and next on to Broadway, where its scheduled five-month run had to be extended. The play won the Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, and the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Broadway Play. 

This year it’s the most popular play in America — being produced at 27 theaters across the country this season. You can see what all the excitement is about at Syracuse Stage through October 12.

Details Box:
What: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, directed by Marcela Lorca
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
, NY
Performance reviewed: Sep. 28, 2014
Remaining performances: Plays through Oct. 12
Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Tickets: Adults $30-$54; 18 and under $18; 40 and under $30-$35; senior discounts all performances except Fri./Sat. P.M.
Call: 315-443-3275 or syracusestage.org
Family guide: Sophisticated humor, suitable for ages 14 and up

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