‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ gives Chekov an American spin

It never fails when I attend an Anton Chekov production: Some patron will mutter during intermission if not before that this can’t be a comedy.  If you read the playwright’s notes in the program for this Center Theatre Group production at that Mark Taper Forum, you might be worried, too. Yet Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is firmly placed in the American cultural landscape of comedy. This is an intelligent laugh-out-loud comedy about dysfunctional families, the kind all too familiar in the Hollywood environments–one with a famous sibling and her clinging hanger-on siblings.

On the other hand, if you’re the parasitic sibling, this might be a tragedy and thus Durang has preserved the dual nature of Anton Chekov’s plays–they have some elements of farce, but they are, to an American mind, mannered tragedies. In the 1904 “The Cherry Orchard,” a family’s estate must be broken up and is sold for a former serf with the eponymous cherry orchard being cut down.

The 1896 “The Seagull” looks at an actress facing old age, her son who wants to be a playwright, a famous writer and the daughter of a rich landowner who becomes the object of the son’s affection.  Love triangles emerge, but the seagull becomes a symbol of something destroyed without purpose, perhaps only out of boredom.

The 1897 “Uncle Vanya” concerns an elderly professor who comes to his rural estate with his trophy wife. His former brother-in-law, Vanya, has managed the estate and the professor’s homely daughter, Sonya, assists. The estate has supported the professor’s lifestyle in the big city, but now the professor feels selling the estate and investing the proceeds will increase his income.

Durang’s conceit is that two professors named their three children after characters from Anton Chekov. That explains, Vanya, Sonia and Masha so we’ll get to Spike later. Vanya (Mark Blum)  is the only son and he’s single with no romantic relations and possibly gay while seeming to lean upon asexual. The parents are long dead, but in their dotage they were cared for by Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen). Neither of them worked, but they were supported by their celebrity sister Masha (Christine Ebersole).

The lovely farm house in Bucks County, PA, has a stone floor patio and Vanya and Sonia watch the world pass them by. The farm house is built of rounded stones and yet there is very little farming. David Korins’ set design suggests gentile rustic life. Vanya doesn’t look like he could bother with weeding a small garden so the management of an actual farm would be quite beyond him and Sonia isn’t much better. This is romantic farm life–out in the country with neighbors a good distance away and no real farm work to be done, making the farm house something like a large playhouse for adults.

Masha sweeps in with her latest boyfriend, the much younger Spike (David Hull). He’s not particularly bright, but he’s eager to take off his clothes to allow his female audience and even the possibly gay Vanya to appreciate his abs. Masha also attracts a fan–a young girl from a neighboring house, Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager).  Nina finds Spike attractive enough, except for his mind and that is the delight of Durang’s script. It doesn’t take you where you think it might go and the twists are funny.

Because Vanya and Sonia are too apathetic to do much for themselves, they have a maid and she’s named Cassandra (Shalita Grant). This is decidedly not very Chekovian and one doubts that Chekov ever considered bringing in someone one with voodoo skills into his theatrical world. Of course, if Chekov was writing in today’s world, he might have included vampires. No vampires here though, but there is a little magic–real or not, you can decide for yourself.

Under the direction of David Hyde Pierce (based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin), this production is hilarious, touching and witty. You don’t have to be familiar with Chekov to appreciate this play, but it does add to the zing. On Broadway, Pierce played Vanya and his sister Sonia was played by Kristine Nielsen with Sigourney Weaver as Masha.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a welcome intelligent but warm-hearted comedy that will remind you that families and life are what you make of them. Sometimes they give you a push in the right direction and sometimes they just push you past sanity.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 9 March 2014. For more information visit their website.

Performance Days and Times
• Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
• Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
• Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
No performance on Mondays.
Ticket Prices: $20-$90
(Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available
• Online at CenterTheatreGroup.org
• By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772
• In person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center

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