Michael L. Quintos
Associate Los Angeles Critic
Shocking it is to admit, my personal familiarity with the classic works of playwright Anton Chekhov is basically slim to none.
Thank goodness my lack of knowledge of his library of theatrical plays and fictional stories didn't prevent me from enjoying Christopher Durang's wildly hilarious, Chekhov-inspired “VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE,” a modern-set play that won the Tony Award for Best Play back in 2013. Apparently filled with casual allusions to past Chekhov works—from character names and one-off references to thematic motifs—the play does offer, at its core, a laugh-a-minute comedy about a dysfunctional trio of siblings trying to face the apparently troubling onset of middle age…and the possibility that they may not have done enough in their lives to deem it a satisfactory one.
An enjoyably snarky comedy with occasional over-the-top moments bordering on absurd, I first encountered this very funny play in its Los Angeles debut production directed by the play's original Broadway star, David Hyde Pierce at the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum in 2014. Even then, it struck me as a supremely entertaining play, filled with wit and sass, but yet surprisingly deep and introspective as well.
Now the play lives on again in a slightly smaller, but still undeniably funny production, this time at Orange County's Tony-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo, which continues performances through October 21, 2018.
As the title clearly suggests, the play focuses on four main characters—three of which are related, while a fourth seemingly comes in just to stir things up.
First, we meet brother-and-sister roommates, 56-year-old Vanya (Will and Grace's Tim Bagley) and his 52-year-old adopted sis Sonia (Jenna Cole) sluggishly welcoming the morning at their cozy country farmhouse home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Their humorous if cantankerous repartee offers a slice-of-life summary of what, we can assume, is their daily, slow-paced routine: they get up, sip coffee in the sun room, recount their dreams (or nightmares) from the previous night, complain about their stilted lives, and basically try to tolerate one another's endless idiosyncrasies until they repeat them all over again the next day.
Clearly, their comfortable yet still dysfunctional relationship is something they've become used to out of sheer necessity, along with the realization that they've allowed the years to pass by without them truly "living" their lives. Sonia, in particular, is continuously melancholy over what she feels is an unfulfilled existence, much to the eye-rolls of her brother, who, for his part, seems actually okay and perfectly content with their lifestyle (or perhaps, has he just surrendered to it?).
But have they accomplished enough in life to matter? Is the trade off for aging being able to look back and be satisfied with what one has done with their lives?
Well, we soon learn that the pair are basically shut-ins in their own home—a cleaner 21st Century version of the Beales of Grey Gardens, except they're not hoarders or have kept their home in disrepair. Neither sibling currently has an occupation, nor do they plan on getting one in the near future. They are, for the lack of better terms, pretty set in their ways, a routine that Sonia bellyaches over, but doesn't seem all too invested in fixing wholeheartedly.
"We forgot to make a life for ourselves!" complains Sonia.
How did they get here? Well, years earlier, the two of them—minus their third sister, who ran off to pursue her Hollywood dreams—spent most of their days in the home taking care of their ailing parents, who have since passed away. Their parents were both professors and were also fans of the theater, which explains why each child was named after a Chekhov character.
At the moment, they both feel (and, well, act) "stuck" in their lives, with Sonia much more vocal about the banality of their existence, while Vanya seems more comfortable with his easy-going lifestyle. But with both siblings not working, how are they funding their life?
They survive, apparently, thanks to the "generosity" of their famous, globetrotting film/tv star sister Masha (Pamela J. Gray) who gives them a stipend to live on and pays for all the expenses related to the home, including the mortgage, the upkeep, and the services of a kooky, apparently clairvoyant maid named Cassandra (Svetlana Efremova). Though she pays for the bills and keeps a roof over her brother's and sister's head, her detachment from their lives—and the house—is markedly palpable… likely on purpose.
Alas, Vanya and Sonia's quiet, ordinary lives of bird watching, chair sitting, and "woah-is-me"-ing are about to be slightly disrupted: Sonia announces that their sister Masha had called and is planning to spend the weekend in the country for a visit.
Really? Why now, all of a sudden? Maid Cassandra—who displays a knack for predicting the future and warning the siblings of present dangers—suspects that Masha is planning on selling their family home.
Oh, no! If her premonition is true, where will Vanya and Sonia go? What will Vanya and Sonia do if they're forced to leave the only home they know?
As one (or Cassandra) may have predicted, the comedy bar is raised even more once dramatic diva Masha bursts into the home, with her extremely youthful boy-toy Spike (Jose Moreno Brooks) in tow. Naturally, she enters and proves instantly the cliché self-absorbed persona one imagines of her ilk, as her perplexed siblings look on with both shock and fascination—and, yes, maybe even a little jealousy.
But why be jealous of a woman so desperate to hang on to her youth, her fame, or her relevance—and whose fifth marriage just imploded and her film career on the skids? In a single breathy sentence, boastful but clearly insecure Masha brags about her jet-setter life whisking from one global setting to another while also trying to convince everyone within earshot that she is probably talented and serious enough to handle doing, oh, a Chekhov play on the stage as the next chapter or her illustrious career. Ha, talk about meta!
Meanwhile, Masha's "him-bo" paramour is also a walking cliché: 2% body fat and purely sexualized masculinity on the outside, equipped with a rather vacant, if harmlessly simple mind on the inside. A lively, uninhibited young man with a penchant for shamelessly shedding all of his clothing down to his bikini-cut underwear, Spike's charisma does add a youthful jolt to the farmhouse, even if his behavior further reminds everyone else just how old they are. But Spike is so darn sociable that he even befriends a neighborhood fanggirl and aspiring actress named Nina (Lorena Martinez) who quickly ensconces herself into the family reunion, much to the annoyance of Masha who sees Nina's youthful, ingenue-like presence as a threat to her importance in the room.
When asked why she has arrived to Bucks County for the weekend, Masha responds with a selfish reason: that she has been invited to a costume party by a very highly influential industry player who happens to live in their neighborhood. Both siblings are invited to come, too, but, controlling as ever, Masha has, of course, pre-selected everyone's costumes. Masha will go to the party as the Disney version of Snow White, while her brother and sister will accompany her as two of the seven dwarves (Spike will escort her as Prince Charming, naturally).
Cartoonishly outlandish but still very grounded in real, relatable emotions, Durang's skills with snark and highlighting human frailties and neuroses keep “VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE” a wonderfully droll treat from start to finish. The snappy back-and-forth banter comes off so naturally that even quieter or purposely crafted awkward or super-odd moments feel like they deserve even a courtesy chuckle.
Though it's quite a wordy play, director DeLorenzo keeps things swiftly paced with hardly any lulls. Most of the time, the line readings feel like we're watching a live taping of a sitcom, though, honestly some of the long, very involved monologues—probably a treat for the actors, but may be too much for the audience—feel a tad too long sometimes. But overall, the play is still a comedic winner.
Visually, the production's surface elements are also exceptional, particularly Keith Mitchell's design for the homey, comfortably lived-in farmhouse, lit well by lighting designer Karyn D. Lawrence. Raquel Barreto's lovely costumes are reminiscent of the Mark Taper Forum production I mentioned earlier, down to the Snow White costumes. A great frock, it has been said, can change someone's very mood and attitude and with that said, the costume that Sonia eventually wears to the costume party (in lieu of Dopey the Dwarf) is definitely worthy of her newfound confidence and spunk that the audience will readily cheer on.
But, of course, this production's assembled cast strongly contributes to this production's overall must-see quality.
Martinez is quite a lovely contrast to the messed-up adults fluttering about, giving her Nina a sweetness that feels genuine and untainted by the dysfunction she encounters. Efremova's eccentric and back-talking housekeeper Cassandra elicits plenty of well-earned laughter with each appearance. Part of me, however, couldn't help but be curious for a split second as to why this production didn't stick with the usual tradition of casting an African-American woman or a person of color for the role, whom I've always assumed from previous productions was someone who came from the Caribbean.
Gray's note-perfect, reality tv-flavored turn as Masha is the very embodiment of white, blonde privilege—complete with snobbish airs and that opaque "please love me/please notice me" desperation most of us despise and/or envy. She definitely sells the idea that she can and does end up being in a relationship with a trophy boy like Spike, someone that can alleviate her insecurities and validate her delusions. For his part, Brooks is a delightful scene-stealer as the unbelievably hot Spike—not only because he (obviously) fits the physical attributes of the role well, but also because the actor gamely and astutely parodies other actors who, um, well… look and act like these kinds of dime-a-dozen hot actors. His "reverse striptease" act is a memorable highlight of the play that is equal parts titillating and hilarious at the same time.
And armed with a kind voice and a friendly, non-threatening demeanor that perfectly embodies the role, Bagley, who plays gay bachelor Vanya, is often the voice of calm for most of the play, but then later explodes with a whiny rant that giddily serves as a representative mouthpiece for audience members who are nostalgic for the good ol' days of handwritten letters, stamp-licking, and "Howdy Doody"—relics of a bygone era when technology didn't push people like him away into hiding. By contrast, Cole does a terrific job portraying perpetual "Debbie Downer" hot mess Sonia, who gets a pleasing 180-degree spin when she throws caution to the wind and takes a risk in the second act (the aforementioned costume/dress and Maggie Smith-inspired accent helps).
By combining the talents of this acting ensemble and Durang's vibrant, witty writing, “VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE” remains one of those comedic plays I will gladly see over and over again, including this enjoyable new iteration at South Coast Repertory. I do hope, though, that when I see the play again when I'm the same age as these siblings are, that I can remain laughing heartily and not sadly identifying personally with the characters myself.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
“VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE” continues at South Coast Repertory through October 21, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.