Let’s face it. This winter sucked the very marrow out of our bones. These days, we’re feeling as hollow as a chocolate bunny left over from Easter.
If you’re wondering where your whoops-a-daisy has gone, revive your flagging spirits at Center Stage’s springy production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning Chekhovian chuckler about a modern-day unhappy family living and bickering in Bucks County, Pa.
Promise you’ll walk out of the theater feeling more like a crocus than a crabapple.
Directed by Eric Rosen with a superb sense of comic timing and a deep understanding of the milieu Durang creates—rather like Noël Coward in Yankee territory—the Center Stage production starts to amuse even before the first line is spoken. Russian-style strings music puts you in a zippy mood as you take in Donald Eastman’s set, which looks like a colonial house in Bucks County painted by Andrew Wyeth—from the pitched ceiling and weathered wood floors, to the wooden staircase and old-but-important oriental rugs, wicker furniture and overstuffed bookcases. There are even framed posters from the Bucks County Playhouse.
This sets the scene for Vanya and Sonia, a hilarious play about First World problems that also manages to impart a universal message about the importance of family ties and acceptance.
The play opens on Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson, point on as the droll, fussbudget Vanya) and his adopted sister Sonia (Barbara Walsh), two middle-aged lumps who spend their days gazing out at the pond and arguing over morning coffee. They have no lives or storied past and that makes them alternately miserable and complacent.
Still living in the house they grew up in — antsy and dissatisfied but too moored to their shared history to go anywhere — Sonia and Vanya sit and wait. Only a visit from the cleaning lady Cassandra (Kerry Warren, a firecracker of a performer), who takes her name way too seriously as she blasts wack-a-doodle warnings like a prophetic bullhorn, shakes them briefly from their languor.
Things liven up for the two when sister Masha (Susan Rome) arrives—a film and stage star who demands being in the spotlight at all times—with her hunky and much-younger boyfriend Spike (Zachary Andrews) in tow.
She’s in town to attend a fancy costume party at the Dorothy Parker house up the road and oh yes, to sell the house. Old sibling rivalries seethe and suddenly three menopausal adults are indulging in infantile behavior—at one point, Masha and Sonia collapse spread-legged on the floor and pout and bawl like babies who didn’t get their way.
At first, the unruffled and distant Vanya stays apart from his sisters’ fracas—he even agrees to dress up like the dwarf Doc and be a background element to Masha’s Technicolor Snow White costume. Sonia refuses to be Dopey and gets her moment in the sun—and a chance at an actual future—when she turns up in a glamorous gown and coiffure as the Evil Queen as played by Dame Maggie Smith.
But Vanya gets his big moment as well, when he loses it after Spike starts texting during a reading of Vanya’s experimental play, which is earnestly dramatized by neighbor and aspiring actress Nina (Emily Peterson), a deeply-dimpled nymph who, as played by Peterson, is her own radiant light source.
Vanya erupts in a delirious and eloquent diatribe against multi-tasking and today’s obsession with technology that mingles Howdy Doody with Bishop Sheen, Old Yeller and postage stamps, phone dials and Mouseketeers. It is a tribute to both Durang’s writing and Nelson’s acting that the absurd line “We licked postage stamps!” becomes an impassioned cry of the heart.
That’s what is lovely about Vanya and Sonia—it’s a riotous sendup of Chekov plays and family dramas that goes deeper to speak directly to our dreads of growing older, of being alone, of being invisible.
And it is so egalitarian. While the group banter delivers one zinger after another—after you hear Masha’s incredulous response to getting coffee from Wawa you will never look at the convenience store quite the same way—everyone gets their moment.
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE
Closes May 25, 2014
700 N. Calvert St
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $10 – $74
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Rome’s Masha is a potent mix of grandeur and narcissism and although her character habitually scene-steals throughout, she is most captivating in her quieter moments when not playing to the balcony, but mulling over her life choices and wondering if she is a heroic figure or merely a foolish woman of a certain age.
Speaking of age, the younger performers are real finds, from the luminous Peterson to Andrews, who plays the lummox Spike as a goofy Golden Retriever type of stud-muffin. He’s the kind of guy who does leg lunges shirtless while Peterson’s Nina gabs rapturously about her favorite Chekhov plays. Warren is like a living alarm clock, snapping you to life every time she howls a Delphic divination that could be profound, could be complete bull hockey.
Durang has crafted a daffy comedy of manners that will delight lovers of The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya and those appreciative of well-made plays. Even if your knowledge of the Russian playwright’s work is limited to vague recollections of samovars and compromised aristocrats chin-wagging in cream-colored suits and gowns, there is plenty of rich comic fodder to mine.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang . Directed by Eric Rosen . Featuring Bruce Randolph Nelson, Barbara Walsh, Susan Rome, Zachary Andrews, Emily Peterson and Kerry Warren . Scenic Designer: Donald Eastman . Costume Designer: Melissa Torchia . Lighting Designer: Victor En Yu Tan . Sound Designer: Joshua Horvath . Stage Manager: Brooke Redler . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.