Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Durang Off the Hook at Shakespeare & Company

By: - Aug 16, 2014

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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Matthew Penn
Set, Patrick Brennan; Costumes, Mary Readinger; Lighting, Matthew Miller;
Sound, Ian Sturges Milliken; Stage Manager, Laura Kathryne Gomez
Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Masha), Jim Frangione (Vanya), Mat Leonard (Spike), Tod Randlph (Sonia), Olivia Saccomanno (Nina), Angel Moore (Cassandra)
Elayne P. Bernstein Playhouse
Shakespeare & Company
Lenox, Mass.
August 2 to September 14, 2014

In the anchor leg of its summer season Shakespeare & Company has saved the best for last.

In order fully to appreciate Christopher Durang’s droll, Tony winning comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, it's best to be familiar with the four iconic plays of Anton Chekhov; Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

It helps to have an ear for a bop jazz ensemble like a Miles Davis quintet with John Coltrane.

In this witty spoof of a Chekhovian dramatic comedy our contemporary playwright has chosen a familiar standard, four actually, broken them down, set them to different tempi, created ensemble riffs on the bridge, then launched the primary characters into manic solos that evoke flat out bop improvisations.

Most of the long first act sets the tune, at times drawn out and a bit tedious, then explodes in the mayhem of the equally long but more fast paced second act.

In the Chekhovian manner that Durang parodies the initial pace is wordy and slow. He was modernist in the grueling realism of dysfunctional families, wasted lives, inner frustrations and tense relationships. It can be a slog until we become in tune and eventually enthralled by the characters.

Talk, talk, talk.

Not much action occurs initially as Vanya (Jim Fragione) and Sonia (Tod Randolph) stare off into space at the blue heron feasting on frogs visible from the porch of the Buck’s County farmhouse they grew up in.

Primoridal nature is often a cusp signifier in the post romanticism and proto modernism of Chekhov.

It is their daily, somber meditation on wasted lives and fifteen years tending to their failing parents both afflicted with Alzheimers. They are siblings but the drab spinster Sonia is adopted. The bills have been paid to maintain the family home, as well as modest stipends, by their gallivanting, diva movie star sister (mostly commercial films) Masha (Elizabeth Aspenlieder).

In the back story it is implied that Masha took off because she got just a dollop of the affection heaped upon her adopted sister. While adored by fans she is in fact starved for real love. This is exemplified by five failed marriages.

Little or no energy exudes from a tepid and flaccid Vanya slowly facing another day in a shabby nightshirt. Waxing philosophical on the non entity of his wasted, stay at home life, he nurses a cup of coffee. There is an exchange as Sonia, entering in an equally disheveled and carelessly groomed manner of one who expects no company, also nurses a mug of Joe.

Vanya states that he is disappointed that she has not brought him his morning coffee as is their routine. They exchange cups. But he is still not satisfied. There isn’t the appropriate mix of cream and sugar. His general mood is pissy and fussy. He exudes the annoyance of a life going nowhere without options. She seems equally resigned.

Then wham. She smashes the mug.

Typical of Durang’s approach to this play the Chekhovian angst and mulling desperation is a setup for surprise. He’s one twisted mofo. What a piece of work.

Cassandra (Angel Moore) sweeps in and with a decidedly delicious and very un Chekhovian manner lays down a mojo. With wonderful energy she elevates the pace with a whirlwind of manic prophesy.

With Cassandra we have a sidebar from 19th century Russian drama into Greek mythology. In order to seduce her the god Apollo gave the gift of prophesy to the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. When she spurned his advances she was cursed that while speaking the truth nobody would believe her.

Durang adds a couple of more wild cards into his Chekhovian gumbo.

Masha makes a rare visit to the homestead she sustains. The star, now a woman of a certain age like her fifty something siblings, has a body building, visibly younger, boy toy Spike (Mat Leonard) on a leash.

She has brought costumes for them all to attend a party in the upscale neighborhood. Masha will be Snow White and they will be her dwarfs. But shit happens.

Into this ever more manic mix there are running Chekhov gags.

It is revealed that Masha plans to sell the house which she rarely visits. Vanya and Sonia can get an apartment.

Looking out into the woods there are references of “What will become of the cherry orchard?” To which the comic response is, what cherry orchard? Ten or so cherry trees does not an orchard make.

Enter a lovely young neighbor (Olivia Saccomanno) who is an immediate rival for Spike’s attention and raging hormones. You guessed it, straight out of The Seagull, what else, she’s Nina.

Stirring the sauce, under the fine direction of Matthew Penn, the pace and action gets ever more wacko. Having established a Chekhovian melody line the play ratchets up from riffs to those over the top solos. They are quite stunning and wonderful especially as played by a super fly cast of gonzo hipsters and frails. Or something like that. Down boy.

Instead of dressing up as some dumb dwarf, like Vanya, and eventually, Nina, it seems that Sonia, for once in her life, has glammed up in slithery sequins as the Evil Queen. Impersonating the British star Maggie Smith she upstages Masha, for once in her life, and returns triumphant from an event where she could have danced all night.

The costumes by Mary Readinger add zing to the humor. The apt set by Patrick Brennan is a bit more detailed than usual for S&Co.

Back home sparks fly. Spike will drive Nina even though she might easily walk. This evokes jealousy from Masha particularly when he exits with the line “Don’t wait up for me.”

In this every more zany mix Aspenlieder has the crucial, least comedic and most demanding role. It requires a gradual arc from her sweeping entrance as a star to an every more tarnished slow decent to reality and humanity. She accomplishes this with all of the considerable skills in an arsenal we have come to know and respect.

The famous movie star as Snow White has been taken for impersonating the faded silent movie star Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard (“Mr. DeMille I’m ready for my closeup”) or, yikes, a Hummel statue.

Nina, how wonderful, has asked Vanya, natch, if she can call him Uncle? That gets a hearty laugh from the audience. They bond and he writes a play in the spirit of the avant-garde Konstantin the son of the fading mid career actress Arkadina in The Seagull. Nina will play a molecule in a post apocalyptic world. She complains that it’s tough to find the motivation of a molecule. Spike breaks us up when he says that he doesn’t get it. Of course you dildo, that’s the point.

During the reading and family gathering the disrespectful Spike is sending selfies and texting to his lover (Masha’s friend and employee) on his cell phone.

This launches Vanya into a brilliant, over the top, five page monologue/ screed on the rudeness of twenty somethings like Spike. There are references to writing letters and licking stamps. Real communication. Spike counters with an innuendo about licking and a retort that those letters took five days instead of a nanosecond of digital communication.

Totally wound up Vanya unleashes a tornado of nostalgic references to early television. The seniors in the audience were in stitches while the fine young thing next to me sat mute. The humor was generational and wild fun. Fragione was sensational in a theatrical challenge that compares to the Lucky speech in Waiting for Godot.

After the ball is over Sonia has a brilliantly poignant, faltering phone exchange with an admirer from the night before. He was smitten with her Maggie Smith bit. Randolph nicely navigates between being flattered and apprehensive should they date and risk his disappointment for her plain Jane self.

In the second act Durang, now totally off the hook, just piles it on.

The beefcake Spike, with his shirt off most of the night posed with nice eggs in the basket of his tight briefs, good grief, more than just eye candy can act. Leonard brought the house down with his “reverse strip tease.” If his acting career slows down Leonard can moonlight with the Chippendales.

What terrific fun when Moore saves the family by putting the voodoo on Masha. She sticks pins in a doll as we hear Masha scream off stage. We want to see lots Moore of this talented young actress. Can she do Shakespeare?

Even in a minor role who in their right mind would not fall head over heels in love with the delightful ingénue as played by Saccomanno? Similar to her namesake, Nina, she causes fits for any mid career rival. Like this promising emerging actress, the young and inexperienced never quite know what they have. Their radiant innocence is so seductive.

We are informed that this final play of the season is going bonkers at the box office. Rightly so for several reasons. It is the widely produced play that everyone wants to see.

Consider that this is the fourth review of Durang’s play for our site. Add to that a fabulous cast and production. It provides a bit of much needed contemporary sorbet to clear the palate after a season, his 450th, when the company has given us Shakespeare up the wazzoooo.

This escape from the Bard at S&Co. felt like Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!