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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — Bucks County Playhouse

untitled (74)Someone who writes lines as punchy and hilarious as Christopher Durang does should remember each whine, comeback, and bon mot he composes. Especially while he is playing the character that delivers them.

Appearing in his Tony-winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Bucks County Playhouse, Durang is like a layman who appoints himself as his attorney. He may be pleasant. You may root for him. You may wish for a line read with one insight that justifies Durang being on stage.

Nothing you hope for in his behalf will do any good. Durang, as Vanya, is study in division of labor. Some people are writers. Others are actors. Durang may have credentials as both. I enjoyed him when he appeared in “Putting It Together” with Julie Andrews. But neither his voice nor his line deliveries have the tone or finesse required for Vanya. Durang’s acting has no pitch, no versatility. Everything is spoken in a flat drone that has no expression and can’t land a joke, let alone the nuanced aria Durang writes for Vanya to perform in the second act.

In full frankness, Durang received an ovation from the Bucks County audience after giving Vanya’s big second-act speech that says a lot about contemporary times in which people, particularly young people, are not as polite, thoughtful, sensitive, respectful, social, productive, or civil as they were in Vanya’s youth 40 earlier. It states clearly what many would like to say, and it says with the right measure of anger, wit, observation, sarcasm, and provoked temperament. The smart, well-constructed diatribe deserves applause.

I, too, respond to it with appreciation and congratulations for the author. But my kudos at BCP are for content and composition, not for presentation. Even in a sequence that might inspire one to emotion, Durang gives Vanya’s tantrum no dramatic heft. The Bucks audience has to settle for a recitation rather than a full-blown performance that would turn the material into an anthem and leave everyone, on stage or off, agog with the scope and sincerity inherent in Durang’s words.

Big moments, important laugh lines, and passages that require subtlety or size are lost because Durang does not have the skill to play them. I was among the people who were thrilled when BCP announced Durang was playing Vanya. I was hoping to hear some lines as they author may have intended them.

While I can’t say I was totally disappointed with Durang’s play — It has durability…and five other actors. — or with Sheryl Kaller’s production, I kept feeling as if I was watching a staging that was missing the actual Vanya. Durang gave no context to his readings, so I not only couldn’t learn the effect or emphasis he would want from a line, I heard lines drop lifelessly, and I saw comic and potentially sweet sequences fall by the roadside because Durang was not a match for his script or the talents of co-stars Deirdre Madigan and Marilu Henner, both of whom demonstrate the difference in result when a first-rate actor takes charge of a scene.

Like Vanya, Sonia has an aria. Hers takes the form of a telephone call in which a man Sonia met while attending a rare party the previous night requests her company for dinner the following Saturday.

Madigan is astounding in this scene, which, by the way, also earn her spontaneous applause.

The actress makes Sonia heartbreaking even as she foments great elation.

Madigan shares Sonia’s rollercoaster of emotions by letting the audience see each reaction, each moment of self-doubt, each moment of disbelief that someone is interested in knowing her, and each shiver of joy she gets at the thought that after years of lonely spinsterhood, she, at age 52, is going out for a date.

The passage, as played by Madigan, and written by Durang, defines the best of what theater can accomplish. It shows a character going through a wealth of feelings and an actress taking her audience on a thrilling ride of sentiment, fear, and concern.

You can hear the disappointed groan when it looks as if Sonia will not have the confidence to accept the date. You can feel the relief when she summons the courage and moxie to say ‘yes.’

Madigan makes you hang on every word Durang wrote for her to say and every idea Durang provides for you to imagine what Sonia’s suitor is saying on the other end of the wire.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” comes to vibrant and affecting life, thanks to Madigan, who would not have had the opportunity to be so touching and entertaining if Durang had not conceived this sequence and executed it so beautifully, so artistically.

You see, I do appreciate Christopher Durang. From “Das Lusitania Songspiel” to “Beyond Therapy” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” etc., I have had thousands of laughs from Durang creations. I am grateful for his writing. I would like to be grateful for his acting. But when you see how Madigan commands a scene, and Durang can only get by on content, you wish for a more complete, more evenly cast production.

Several sequences catch fire when Durang, as performer, is not central to them.

As the Hardwick siblings — Vanya, Sonia, and Masha — return home from a party at a neighboring New Hope home, the one once owned by Dorothy Parker, Masha is glum because Sonia has, for the first time in family history, outshined her at a social gathering. Masha is an internationally known actress, famous for a series of action thrillers she has made. She is accustomed to being the center of attention. Indeed, the hosts invited only Masha who took her siblings along to increase her luster in comparison.

Everyone wants to meet and say they have been to a party with Masha Hardwick, the movie star. Hardly anyone, even among the closest neighbors, is aware Sonia Hardwick exists, let alone in such proximity.

Sonia’s triumph causes a row. Masha is in a foul and spiteful mood, not only because of Sonia’s success at the party, but because her studmuffin of a boyfriend, the incredibly built and astoundingly dim Spike, is driving a comely ingénue home from the party, after dropping Masha off first. It doesn’t help that the ingénue barely scrapes age 20 while Masha admits to 41, “OK, 42,” and is actually 55.

Masha begins to take her frustration out on Sonia who counters by taunting her sister for begrudging her one good time in 30 years during which Masha has been everywhere from Paris to Borneo making hit films, earning a fortune, and experiencing five husbands.

Madigan and Henner make the most out of the confrontation. With escalating strength, the actresses almost challenge each other to top this particular display of emotion, that particular savage remark.

Both women are on their game, Henner showing the resourceful, energy, and variety that has kept her a star for decades, Madigan meeting her , accusatory blow for deflating blow.

The actresses whip the Bucks County stage into a frenzy. Neither one knows the meaning of stop or surrender, and each abandons subtlety with her first salvo. The catfight, not the first and probably not the last, between the sisters is at once harrowing and hilarious, and neither Henner nor Madigan give an inch until both sisters dissolve into their individual chairs in tears.

Durang’s Vanya has been off in the kitchen making tea for the trio during his sisters’ contretemps. When he comes out and sees them both bawling in great sobs and both vying for his sympathy and attention, you’d anticipate an amazing comic moment in store.

Nope. Durang doesn’t know how to act surprised or concerned. He calmly puts the tea down, says in Chekhovian parody, “My dear Sonia, my dear Masha,” proceeds to rub both women’s arms, and starts pouring tea and asking his seething sisters to settle down.

Durang’s entrance has no comic effect. He doesn’t even bug his eyes or look back and forth at Henner and Madigan to figure out what might have happened.

The scene is not wasted. Nothing is lost from the heady good time Henner and Madigan have just provided. It’s just that their effort is not continued. Durang’s script calls for the women to cry and be crestfallen. It’s up to Vanya to get the next laugh, to make their pity fest into something continuingly comic, or even sentimental.

Durang can’t do it. He can’t muster a strong reaction or even think of a way to seem agitated, as if he’s seen this situation too many times to be affected by it.

I don’t want to harp on the poor man’s acting, but “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” would have been better served with a more flexible, versatile, and expressive pro in the key lead role. Durang is constantly water dousing any fire Henner, Madigan, or Mahira Kakkar, as a clairvoyant housekeeper named Cassandra, can and do ignite.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a sharp comedy that spoofs Chekhov and other literary sources as it tells the story of a family in disarray and in which everyone is sad and seems to be happy being melancholy. Greek tragedy blends with Russian torpor, beach blanket bingo, and country life in Bucks County, Pa. to create a funny, perceptive, entertaining show.

Durang may not be aces as an actor. He may have to render appearing in his own plays to the memory of Noel Coward, the practicality of Charles Busch, or the dual talents of Bruce Graham. But the man can write, and his mind is of a zany, irreverent, and inventive cast.

Vanya, Sonia, and Masha behave like Chekhovian siblings. Vanya and Sonia have reached middle age without having even the slightest semblance of a career or the ambition to seek one. Neither has had a serious romantic adventure, either, not even gay Vanya in New Hope! Vanya, Masha’s natural brother, and Sonia, the siblings’ adopted sister, have stayed in the same comfortable New Hope cottage by the shore of a pond for their entire lives. Well, in Sonia’s case, since she was brought into the Hardwick family, at age eight.

For 15 years previous to the beginning of Durang’s play, Vanya and Sonia have taken care of their dying parents. Now that their elders are gone, and both siblings are in their 50s, they see their lives as empty and pointless. This makes them sad even though each has a pastime he or she enjoys. The children of English professors and amateur actors who named them after Chekhov characters, Vanya and Sonia love to read and are quite witty and articulate. They also like to laze in their garden, sipping coffee, tea, or wine and wait for a blue heron to make a diurnal visit.

Masha’s life has been far different. She is a highly trained actress with an Actors Studio pedigree who began a career as a lauded young actress in the classics before she was offered movie roles and found fame and fortune as a one-woman wrecking crew in a skein of science fantasy films.

Masha is known worldwide. She causes a major commotion every time she returns home to Bucks County to relax or to visit her sibs.

Because Vanya and Sonia never worked, and their parents’ savings and pensions did not cover their expenses, Masha has been footing the Hardwick bills for decades with frequent grumbles but no threat to stop financing the entire family in perpetuity.

Until this particular visit. With her hunky vapid paramour in tow, and a Snow White costume she intends to wear to the party at the Dorothy Parker house while all else go as dwarves or warty witches, she descends upon New Hope to announce her earnings per picture are decreasing and she must consolidate her assets and sell the family house.

Vanya and Sonia are up in arms. The family house in their lifelong home, and they have no wherewithal to go anyplace else. Vanya wonders out loud if there remains such a thing as a poor house to which they can retire.

You see the main conflict and the Chekhovian overtones — Arkadina or Ranevskaya swooping in from Paris to disrupt the peace, numbingly miserable though it may be, at the family dacha so dear to Konstantin, Varya, Vanya, Anya, or whomever.

Add to the frothy mix a maid who comes to tidy Vanya and Sonia’s home once weekly and who is given to fits of prophetic revelation that she delivers in the style of a Greek chorus, portents of gloom and doom accompanying ominous and baffling warnings, such as “Beware the Ides of March” or “Beware Hootie Pie.” The latter premonition has some significance to Durang’s play.

Also on hand is Masha’s boytoy, Spike, who is oblivious to anything but his own rather stunning good looks, his sculptured body, and the chance to be intimate, for the time being, with an international celebrity who hooked him up with an agent. Spike’s claim to fame is he almost scored the leading role in a television series, “Entourage 2.” His claim to our attention is his almost pathological inability to keep on his clothes.

Lucky, lucky us!

Rounding out the characters is a young woman who wanders to the Hardwicks from an adjoining property in hopes of meeting the great Masha Hardwick. This woman’s name is Nina, which makes Masha think of the family friend in Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull,” an association that disturbs her, especially when Nina becomes taken with the charms, and physique, of Spike and vice versa.

Women rule the Bucks County cast. Sheryl Kaller’s production is smooth and amiable, but it is Henner, Madigan, Kakkar, and Clea Alsip, as Nina, who garner the most appreciative attention. Jimmy Mason lives up to the physical requirements of Spike, but he doesn’t have the charm or insouciance to make his stud truly comic or truly likeable.

Mason does have the goods to make Spike delectable window dressing and diverting eye candy.

Deirdre Madigan embodies the angst of a Chekhovian character.

Sonia is not as adept at entertaining herself as Vanya is. She feels as if she has accomplished nothing, has nothing to show for her years on Earth, and nothing much to which she can look forward. She claims to be bored and miserable, but suddenly declares how surprised she is to be so content and happy.

In general, Sonia does mark time, and Madigan shows what her idleness and feelings of uselessness cost her while showing Sonia’s cultured and convivial side. The actress is as deft at general patter and idle conversation as she is at scenes that require a lot of range and depth, such as her scene with Henner and her telephone soliloquy.

Madigan makes you feel for Sonia. You want more for her, especially after she defies Masha and refuses to go to the neighbor’s party as a dwarf — Masha thinks she would be perfect as Dopey. — and fashions her own costume instead, a rather lovely and sophisticated cocktail dress she finds at a thrift store and wears to represent the wicked witch from “Snow White” as she might be portrayed by Maggie Smith.

Madigan can excite paroxysms of laughter just by going into her riffs as The Mag. She has the bite of the accent and the trick of Smith’s singsong down perfectly. Her model is the character Smith plays in “California Suite.”

“You know,” Madigan’s Sonia would say, “the actress who comes with her gay husband to L.A. because she’s nominated for an Oscar but doesn’t win the Oscar as Smith did for playing her.”

Marilu Henner is a whirlwind as Masha, who wants to be kind and loving to her siblings but is annoyed by their genteel country idleness and flummoxed when they don’t give into her every whim, including being happy that she is selling their childhood — and adult — home from under them.

Henner has many funny lines, which she handles with aplomb, but she doesn’t have the advantage of gaining the audience’s affection as quickly as Vanya and Sonia do. Her Masha is the outsider, and Henner has to win the admiration of the crowd by being as outsized as a movie star of Masha’s caliber would be while being genuine and loving enough to convince the audience she would never really hurt or displace her siblings.

Masha is the one who keeps hearth and home together financially, and it is interesting to see the ways Henner tries to introduce practical matters to conversations and how most of her attempts fail because she becomes sensitive, touchy really, to something Vanya or Sonia says.

Henner keeps up well with Masha’s many moods and her jealousy over both Spike’s roving eye and Sonia’s being the belle of a ball she wanted to dominate.

Henner takes a comic approach to Masha being put upon and to Masha’s complaints about the cost of her siblings’ upkeep and all she has sacrificed to support every living Hardwick in whatever quantity they numbered.

Masha wants to rule the roost, and Henner is good at showing her subdued frustration when she is thwarted. She can also insist with authority, as when she commands Nina to trade her princess costume for the Dopey outfit Sonia rejected.

To some extent, Masha is the Hollywood star who is in the constant company of celebrities and lionized by fans everywhere but who would like to know she can find solace and a getaway in her family’s quiet quarter of Bucks County. She also would liked to be loved, especially by Spike, for her merits as a person and not her status as a movie icon. Heller makes that aspect of Masha clear and affecting. You see that, on some level, she’d like to fit in with her sister and brother, even though she knows she can’t. Three days in New Hope would bore her silly compared to all she can do in New York, L.A., or abroad.

Mahira Kakkar is hilarious as Cassandra, a psychic no one believes even though she’s often right and can spare folks a lot a pain and heartbreak if they would listen to her.

Kakkar is direct in her approach to comedy, and her full-steam-ahead presence adds to the comedy in Durang’s play. The actress is also wonderful in launching into one of Cassandra’s Greek-style fits. Her arms bend at the elbow, her hands in the air, fingers twitching, as she relates her latest revelation and notes of caution. Kakkar also has a great scene that involves a voodoo doll that, to her delight, works as designed.

Amid the size and mayhem her castmates create, Clea Alsip is a natural and winning Nina, who shows signs of acting talent that impress the Hardwicks, including Masha, and who is a contrast to Spike in being a polite, through straightforward, representative of her generation, one Durang’s Vanya harpoons in his long speech about the decline of today’s manners.

That speech reveals Vanya’s constant and ongoing frustration with people, young people in particular, who don’t listen when others are speaking, who think multi-tasking is a virtue, who live almost as solipsists riveted to mobile phones or tablets and playing violent games, and who have robbed the world of basic civility even to the point of regarding themselves as being more important or worthy than their elders.

Durang has crafted the speech well, and all Vanya mentions in it has to touch a cord with anyone who observes modern life or expresses concern about the obliviousness and impersonal nature of so many people today.

“Oblivious” is the watchword for Spike. He is a member of his generation who would be undaunted by his ignorance and obtuseness. That’s why he is the catalyst for Vanya’s outburst.

Jimmy Mason looks the part of Spike. His well-toned muscles ripple. He has an admirable tan. He has the physical grace to look good leaping in the air, one knee raised high, like a figure on a Greek amphora.

Mason has the opposite problem from Durang in that, as an actor, he goes too far. His Spike is a lunk who never registers as likeable, lovable, or anythingable that would make the audience see him as any more than a device to add of frisson of sex to “Vanya, etc.” or as male decoration.

Mason plays Spike’s dumbness well enough, but he never makes the character cute or appealing. Mason’s Spike is a boor while I’ve seen the part played better by actors who portray him as an overgrown boy who thinks he possesses more gifts than he does but who endears himself with a lack of sophistication and appearance of being undomesticated rather than making himself irritating as someone more mindless than a drunk sports fan bellyaching in a bar after watching his team lose.

Marilu Henner, Deirdre Madigan, Mahira Kakkar, and Clea Alsip make Kaller’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike worth seeing. Each has a fine moment, and Madigan and Henner have some special sequences.

Christopher Durang is to be congratulated for writing a warm, funny, perceptive play. He is game to act the lead, and I understand why the Bucks County Playhouse jumped at the chance to have him in the acting company.

I only wish Durang had more command over, and could provide more variety within, his part.

Lauren Helpern designs a cozy and comfortable New Hope home, complete with room for plenty of books and a stage left door from which Spike can make his near-naked Greek leaps.

Paloma Young’s costumes are often a hoot, although I think Nina would have dressed more Chestnut Hill than Oxford Valley. The dress Young selected or created from Sonia to wear to the party was lovely and perfect.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through Sunday, August 10 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $69.50 to $25 and can be ordered by calling 215-862-2121 or by going online to http://www.bcptheater.org.

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