All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Christopher Durang is a master gagster who is not afraid to let his education or cultural leanings show is his many comedies, most of which spoof some aspect of modern life from psychiatry and religion to Hollywood movies and literary masterpieces.
In his Tony-winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” now being produced at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Durang manages to touch on many of the above. He creates a Chekhovian world in Bucks County, Pa. where the Hargrove family, given the first names of Chekhov characters by parents who were professors, community theater actors, and admirers of the good doctor, reside in genteel idleness and profound sadness they do nothing about. Unless you count complaining.
Two of the siblings, Vanya and Sonia, have been in the New Hope area cottage they share for most of their lives. Neither has ever attempted a career or even a hobby. They spent most of their adult existence seeing their parents to a loving and peaceful end. Since their father’s money evaporated in health care and other expenses, they have lived on the generosity of their younger sister, Masha, an internationally known star of stage and screen who traded her classical credentials to make millions playing a sci-fi heroine in a series of hideous-sounding films.
Vanya and Sonia’s idyllic country life is threatened by Masha’s idea, planted in her head by her manager and financial advisor, Hootie Pie, that she should liquidate assets and consolidate her funds. One of the casualties in this fiduciary gambit would be the house that shelters Vanya and Sonia. They, nearing or in their 60s, would have to retreat to some retirement home or, for the first time in their lives, find sustaining employment. Vanya sardonically pictures them waiting on customers for minimum wage at a McDonald’s or CVS.
Trouble and melancholy are ingredients fro Chekhov’s comedies, and Durang uses them liberally to cloud Vanya and Sonia’s tenuous existence. Each describes his or her life as a nightmare, but unlike Chekhov’s Vanya, Treplev, or Varya, their lives are not all that unpleasant. Every day might be much like another, but they spend time sitting in their sunny porch sipping coffee, gossiping, and trading bon mots laced with literary reference.
Life for Vanya and Sonia is not difficult, just routine and a tad boring. Neither has much of a past, and both have just as little to which they can look forward. They are stagnant, but as long as Masha, the Arkadina or Ranevskaya of the piece, covers the bills, they are healthy and comfortable, ruffled only by their own discontent and petty irritations they magnify into problems.
In Durang’s hands, Vanya and Sonia are loveable misfits., perpetual children who should have lived in an age when one was expected to inherit an estate and live on it aristocratically. Unfortunately, Masha owns anything that matters, mainly because she took responsibility for the Bucks County household when her parents’ funds disappeared. Vanya and Sonia are at the mercy of their sister, which is a cause of both Chekhovian angst and Durangian hilarity.
Even if one doesn’t know who Anton Chekhov is or confuses the playwright with a character actor from Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” Durang’s “Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike” will provide gales of laughter.
Durang is flat-out funny. He can craft a joke out of anything, and the Hargroves, proud of their educations, love using their wit to give snappy answers to obvious questions and while speaking in general. Puns, double entendres, wisecracks, snarky observations, and self-effacement abound. Humor is part of Vanya and Sonia’s metier, and they excel in it, Masha being as funny and caustic as her siblings.
Beyond providing Chekhovian characters in Chekhovian dilemma, the potential demise of the estate, Durang has fun drawing from other literary genres to advance his plot and promote honest, well-earned yuks. Strapped for funds though they are, Vanya and Sonia have a maid, Cassandra, who visits once a week to clean and do light household chores that don’t involve cooking. True to her name, Cassandra can see into the future with impressive accuracy. As she has her inspirations and explains her prophecies, she often goes into paroxysms of poetry as if she is the entire chorus of a Greek tragedy. Durang’s flights of language are particularly impressive in these sequences that entertain as much as they foreshadow. The audience delights in seeing some of Cassandra farthest fetched notions come to fruition. Cassandra delights in them too, so much so she makes up auguries on the spot when she thinks they will serve a purpose. Her best bit involves a stick pin and a voodoo doll used to wonderful effect.
Masha does not arrive in New Hope alone. As opposed to being accompanied by a great writer like Trigorin, she has in tow a gym-hardened specimen of American youth called Spike, a would-be actor who boasts about almost getting cast for the lead role in “Entourage 2.”
Spike is a nimble lad who has a penchant for removing his clothing, much to the delight of the audience, Masha, Vanya, who is gay, and Nina, a girl with a Chekhovian name, a fact not lost on Masha, who lives next door to the Hargroves and has acting aspirations of her own. James J. Christy, the director of the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” makes use of actor Alec Shaw’s physical beauty and physical prowess by having him leap off the Hargrove porch and assume a classic pose, arms forward, parallel legs bent at the knee behind him, like Diana running through a wood.
Words fuel Durang’s play, but so do some inspired comic ideas, e.g. having Masha decide that she, her siblings, Spike, and Nina will attend a neighbor’s costume party dressed as characters from Disney’s “Snow White.” Naturally, she takes the role of the princess, dressed in an exact replica of the primary colored dress Snow White wears in the Disney classic while she chooses to send Vanya and Sonia to the party as dwarves, Grumpy and Dopey to be specific. When Sonia rebels and opts to find her own costume, Nina is assigned to be Dopey, an act that suits Masha because she’s afraid Spike is becoming attractive to the more age-appropriate Nina.
The costume party, besides moving the plot forward, becomes the source of many kinds of comedy, physical and verbal. Sonia steals the occasion when, in place of the Dopey costume she bequeaths to Nina (or, more accurately, which Masha makes Nina wear when she sees how glamorous she looks in a princess get-up she bought at at K-Mart), she dons a chic ball gown she found in an Upper Black Eddy thrift shop and, in keeping with the Snow White theme, decides to go to the party as the Wicked Witch dolled up and speaking like Maggie Smith.
The Smith imitation pays dividends for Sonia. The day after the party, a man calls and asks her for a dinner date, the first one she’s had in decades. Sonia was not only more of a hit than Masha at the costume ‘do,’ held, by the way, at the house Dorothy Parker once owned, she seems to have better luck in the romance department. Spike, though liking his meal ticket and entrée to agents and casting directors, has a fickle streak and looks as if she may opt for younger pastures.
By now, you know Durang passes up no opportunity for comedy, and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” remains a breezy lark with many major laughs and a few passages of sentiment or pathos in Christy’s production for the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
The cast has their timing and their sense of literature in tact as they entertain grandly in Durang’s opus. Grace Gonglewski is particularly attuned to the rhythms of inner workings of Masha. Gonglewski brings a star’s shine to the character while also knowing how to play the baby sister who has all of the success and all of the power.
Gonglewski’s Masha is a walking melodrama. Every incident, no matter how small, seems pre-designed to set her nerves on edge. She feels unappreciated and even disliked by Vanya and Sonia. She is losing her grip on Spike. Cassandra drives her to distraction, at times literally. And her response to Nina, friendly when the two first meet and Nina fawns on the movie star in her midst, turns frosty, then wary, when worry about Spike being attracted to Nina sets in.
Gonglewski handles all like a wounded matinee idol, claiming she’s put upon and misunderstood while devising her own strategy to get what she wants and ruining everyone’s day by announcing her siblings’ impending eviction from the only home they’ve known.
Gonglewski not only acts her part completely. She looks the part. She exudes glamor and confidence. It’s in her walk, hairdo, and wardrobe. Masha knows some million dollar deal will come her way even as acknowledges jobs in the movies are coming further and further apart. She can complain a lot, but in the end, Masha has the clout and the savings to make her life easy, Spike or no Spike, and with the New Hope property untouched even by a mortgage.
The havoc Masha brings only varies the amount and level of annoyances that rankle Vanya and Sonia every day. The siblings half relish having something real to rail about and try to thwart.
Vanya is the more adjusted of the two. He believes his life was wasted and that his chance for any kind of accomplishment is past. He doesn’t say it, but you can tell he also regrets not having any kind of social life. His response to Spike, especially when the actor takes his clothes off and comes close to him shows Vanya retains his libido. He and Sonia have lived like spinsters, and that weighs on Vanya.
Kraig Swartz accentuates Vanya’s pleasant side and the evenness of his temper. Vanya has one major outburst that Swartz plays to effect, but in general, the character remains a witty, congenial man who seeks peace between his sisters and rises to intense, heartfelt pique only when he thinks he is being unappreciated and undervalued in ways that are unfair and not in keeping with the man he is and the son who took care of parents who, no matter what he, or Sonia, did for them, lavished their praise and attention on the usually absent Masha.
Swartz’s amiability leaves the histrionic field wider for Gonglewski as Masha, Deirdre Madigan as Sonia, or Alec Shaw as Spike to claim it. Swartz’s Vanya remains an important and integral part of the action. He has a wry way with Durang’s lines, but he tends to give way to the actresses playing his sisters in terms of dominating the stage.
One of Swartz’s line readings puzzled me. Durang, as I mentioned, tosses literary references from more than Chekhov into “Vanya and Sonia, etc.” One is a famous line from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” When Vanya sees Spike frolicking almost nude near a pond, he says, “Young man, young, young man,” echoing Blanche’s words from when she tries to seduce the paperboy collecting for “The Evening Star.” Durang, a film buff and one who loves divas like Blanche clearly intends that line to be delivered as Vivien Leigh speaks it in the 1951 movie of “Streetcar.” Vanya, a 60ish gay man, would know the passage as well as Durang does. Yet Swartz said his “young man’s” with no intonation or sense of parody. It’s a missed opportunity and made me wonder if he or Christy ever saw “Streetcar.” (Durang will be playing Vanya in the Bucks County Playhouse production of his play this summer. Marilu Henner will be Masha.)
Deirdre Madigan is more successful in her imitation of Maggie Smith. Sonia is so good at doing The Mag, the gentleman who calls her for the date is surprised when he hears her real voice.
Madigan brings out the feistiness, sarcasm, and latent bitterness of Sonia. Though Sonia is proud of her famous sister, she wants some recognition that she, like Vanya, did something of value by taking care of parents who apparently were not the best or most appreciative patients.
Sonia has always felt a kind of competition with Masha, especially since she, Sonia, is adopted and came to the Hargrove household at age eight from an orphanage. Madigan reveals this resentment in several ways. It is always Sonia who confronts or rattles Masha when the actress goes on about all she’s sacrificed financially to take care of her siblings and their home.
Madigan seems at home with the eccentricity and “oh well, this is my lot in life” nature of Sonia. She conveys her sense of gloom but also gets her whimsy, for instance when Sonia rejects the Dopey costume and follows her own plan instead of Masha’s.
Alec Shaw nails every bit of the shallow narcissism of Spike, a boy at heart who likes to run, romp near water, and use his looks to secure a place for himself in a comely woman’s bed.
Shaw’s Spike doesn’t understand, as Vanya and Sonia immediately do, that being turned down for “Entourage 2” is hardly an accolade, let alone something to brag about and use as a sign an acting career like Masha’s is just around the bend.
Spike will get far on his looks. Everyone in the Hargrove home, except for Cassandra, certainly notices and is stirred by his physical charms.
Shaw shows how much Spike likes parading his physique. He also lets us see how Spike has no boundaries and what his close proximity does to Vanya and Nina and even the less impressed but equally admiring Sonia.
Shaw doesn’t walk as much as spring everywhere he goes, and he has the perpetual smile and nonchalant tone of a young man who aims to please and knows he pleases just fine any time he enters a room.
Kianné Muschett makes an impact as Cassandra, who doesn’t mind cleaning messes as long as they are not purposely made, as with some smashed coffee cups by the fireplace, and doesn’t want to cook until coaxed by Masha to at least try her hand at sandwiches.
Cassandra’s best scenes are her prophecies. Muschett can be a little more musical, ethereal, and taken in ecstasy by her Greek chorus scenes, but she is dead-on when she gets to predict the future directly. Muschett is best in the scene when she is bedeviling Masha with the aid of a voodoo doll to persuade the actress to leave the house as it is with Vanya and Sonia in it.
Clare O’Malley is lovely as Nina. She has just the right touch of ingénue innocence and the perfect feel to how to approach Masha as a fan who only wants to say hello and how much she admires the actress’s work.
O’Malley is natural and makes her mark in every situation.
James J. Christy’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is not a special one except, perhaps, in the performances by Gonglewski and O’Malley. It is funny and entertaining and without any missteps. Unadorned as the production is with even the slightest bit of theatrics to push laughs or overdo bits, Christy’s staging shows the quality of Durang’s play and how its humor remains evident even when there’s no attempt to emphasize it. Durang sets up authentically tense and fragile situations just as Chekhov does. Christy opted to play them naturalistically, a dwarf costume or two notwithstanding. The ease of the production made it all the more enjoyable. Laughs were honest and driven by a scene or earned by characters who are witty and say clever things without having to make a concerted or self-conscious effort to the funny.
Jaunty music by Robert Maggio sets up Christy’s production well. Maggio’s music becomes darker and more complicated as the plot does. David P. Gordon provides a lovely breakfast room for the Hargroves. Richard St. Clair’s costumes, including his outfits for the dwarves and Nina’s K-Mart princess, are wonderful and true to the characters. Of course, Spike’s gear is easy. He only needs clothes he can quickly tear down to his Speedos.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, April 20 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $46 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by going online to www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.