Absurdity and Melancholy Merge in “Vanya and Sonya and Masha …,” As Durang Performs in His Own Play at Bucks County Playhouse
The Bucks County Playhouse summoned all the appropriate muses last Friday night for the opening of its current production of Christopher Durang’s highly acclaimed comedy, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. It’s a wonderful script, cleverly combining Durangian absurdity and hilarity with Chekhovian references (starting with the names of the three protagonists), a certain tone of poignant melancholy and a richness of characterization.
Also intriguing is the notion of the playwright himself playing the role of Vanya and the proximity of the theater just a few miles from the “lovely farmhouse in Bucks County” where the play is set, with numerous local references, along with Mr. Durang’s usual vast quota of humorous contemporary pop culture allusions throughout the evening. Production values here are consistently strong, and the Bucks County Playhouse (BCP), refurbished and reopened two years ago after a two-year hiatus, seems to be on a roll with high quality Equity productions (Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly premiered at BCP last season before debuting on Broadway four months ago). Marilu Henner and Deirdre Madigan lead a top-flight cast in Vanya and Sonia…, under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, who also directed the debut of Mothers and Sons.
A beautiful summer evening on the banks of the Delaware seemed to indicate all the planets and muses aligned, but the mother of the Greek muses, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, was a conspicuous no-show. Mr. Durang, at several points during the evening forgot lines, derailed in the middle of a long climactic monologue, and needed prompting from off-stage. His characterization of the middle-aged Vanya was appealing, mostly on-target and effective, and he has, in the past, successfully taken on major roles in his own works on stage, but here, the lapses undermined the power and credibility of the character and caused problems for both audience and other actors.
Tales of famous actors “going up” on their lines are legendary, but there is the inescapable irony of this happening to the playwright who created the lines, in a character who, like his creator, is a middle-aged Bucks County resident and who voices much of the playwright’s wit, humor, and attitude towards contemporary life. Spencer Tracy’s terse advice to actors — “Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” at least the first part, is not to be scoffed at, and let’s invoke the mighty Mnemosyne to bestow her gift of memory on future performances.
The three protagonists here are middle-aged siblings, given names from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (Mr. Durang), Sonia (Ms. Madigan), and Masha (Ms. Henner) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.
The action of the play takes place in the sunroom, vividly and realistically presented in great detail in Lauren Helpern’s fine set, of the old family farmhouse where Vanya and Sonia have lived for their whole lives. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of a propitious blue heron.
Early in the first of two acts, Masha, a narcissistic, movie-star actress who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity, arrives with her much younger boyfriend Spike (Jimmy Mason), an aspiring actor who was “almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2,” and specializes in taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants.
Also appearing is a wildly dramatic cleaning lady Cassandra (Mahira Kakkar), who reveals an array of psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies, and excruciatingly painful voodoo techniques. Nina (Clea Alsip), a star-struck ingénue from next door also drops in, much to Masha’s dismay, on invitation from Spike.
Masha, who has been financially supporting her siblings, announces — shades of Chekhov, and, yes, they do have a cherry orchard — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Vanya and Sonia are devastated, but Masha, ever self-absorbed, moves forward with her plans to attend a local costume party as Walt Disney’s Snow White, with Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as attendant dwarves. She has, characteristically, brought all the requisite costumes with her.
As the action proceeds through the evening into the next day, Masha’s efforts to self-promote and hold onto Spike meet with some surprising obstacles, and Vanya and Sonia both experience potentially life-changing moments. As in Chekhov, in some ways it seems as if “nothing happens,” but indeed something meaningful does happen for all of the characters, and, in Mr. Durang’s play, those happenings keep the audience laughing throughout.
This vastly entertaining Bucks County Playhouse production in many ways compares favorably with the 2012 McCarter Theatre world premiere production that went on from Princeton to Lincoln Center then Broadway, where it enjoyed a long run and numerous awards including the Tony for Best Play.
Ms. Madigan’s Sonia is extravagantly funny and sympathetic, larger than life in her Chekhovian gloom and world-weariness (“I’m in mourning for my life”), delightfully energized in her anger and animosities, poignantly moving in her desire for love, attention, a life. She is especially memorable in donning tiara and sequins for the costume party to defy her sister and play the role of evil queen in the mode of Maggie Smith, then later in a tour-de-force extended phone conversation with her first-ever prospective suitor.
In the prima donna part, written for and performed by Sigouney Weaver in the McCarter production, Ms. Henner brings her own star-studded credentials — Broadway, movies and TV, most memorably perhaps in the long-running TV series Taxi. She embraces the aging, ego-centric starlet role with panache, and contributes a new, more appealing, more human dimension or two to the characterization.
Mr. Mason’s hilarious boy toy Spike provides an occasionally shocking, sexually-charged glimpse of the new generation and creates an entertaining incongruity in the Chekhovian setting and a source of sharp conflict for the older generation.
Ms. Kakkar in her flamboyant, attention-grabbing role and Ms. Alsip in a more understated, realistic part, both provide strong support and contribute significantly to the eventual outcome of events.
Ms. Kaller has directed with finesse, fine comic timing, and an intelligent balance between the serious and the hilarious. The ensemble interacts credibly and effectively, and we do care about these three engaging, aging siblings, as they struggle to work out their individual destinies.
This production does need the blessing of the goddess of memory and the advice of Spencer Tracy during the next three weeks of its run, and audience members who saw the McCarter-Lincoln Center-Broadway production will certainly miss the brilliant David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role of Vanya. But the script is a masterpiece of comic writing, one of the best from the pen of one of the finest American playwrights of the past fifty years, and Ms. Kaller and company have provided an evening rich in laughter and dramatic interest — well worth the trip to Bucks County.