Last fall, when American Theatre Magazine published their annual list of “American Theatre’s Top 10 Most-Produced Plays Of 2014-15,” one play ruled them all: Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. While the magazine’s numbers are problematic,* Durang’s Vanya has hard-to-deny accolades, like a 2013 Best Play Tony, a mythical recouping of expenses on its Broadway production, and, now, productions across the country, including at DC’s very own Arena Stage.
After taking in the play’s opening this past week, it’s easy to see why Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is so popular and such an astute choice for Arena to program. The play has a talented author in Christopher Durang, whose penchant for blood-freezing awkwardness is the epitome of the modern American “living room play.” Arena couldn’t have found a better director in Aaron Posner, whose recent adaptation Life Sucks at Theater J means that he is closer to the Chekhovian source material than anyone around. Durang’s Vanya fits DC audiences, too, with rapid-fire topicality beloved by our highly-educated, hyper-social populace.
But there’s another, less laudable, reason that this play seems to be the choice of the zeitgeist: there’s no risk involved.
Doing work by Anton Chekhov is risky. His plays usually take place in the fading glory of the Russian countryside, where characters loll around, do nothing, and complain in a way that manages to be humorous and heart-breaking until a crisis intervenes, which may or may not change the world of the play. That’s a hard sell, especially for American audiences who might not totally jive with turn of the century Russian humor. But both Durang and Posner consummately amalgamate Russian pieces of source material into an essentially American play.
Like all of Chekhov’s most famous plays, Durang’s Vanya starts with a country house, this time in Bucks County, PA, artfully designed in Arena’s round Fichandler space by Daniel Conway. Conway conveys the great room of a country house, the room so multi-functional it has lost all purpose, and Conway nicely provides levels for Posner’s staging to make up for the stasis of the set. Robert Perry’s lighting design accompanies the space well, with subtle touches that focus on time of day and natural-seeming tones. His lighting and Conway’s set divide the stage well, too, creating different moods on each quarter of the stage. (Side note for uber-Chekhov nerds: each quarter seems to represent a different Chekhov play: the door for Three Sisters, the interior for Uncle Vanya, the trees for The Cherry Orchard, and the lake for The Seagull)
The play’s characters are divided into quarters as well. Vanya, played with spectacular crotchetiness by Eric Hissom, and his sister Sonia, embodied with exceptional talent by Sherri Edelen, are caretakers of the house who sacrificed their best years to taking care of their invalid parents. With the parents now deceased, they wallow in self-induced depression in the most Chekhovian way possible, commiserating in their shared misery.
Another quarter goes to the intruders on Vanya and Sonia’s world: their sister Masha (who gets a wickedly funny selfishness from actress Grace Gonglewski) and her boyfriend Spike (done well by Jefferson Farber, despite the fact that Spike has both the abdominals and character depth of a washboard). Masha is a movie star in Durang’s world, and she and her much younger boyfriend serve as active but shallow foils to Vanya and Sonia’s introspective but do-little characters. Masha’s desire for money (through her threat to sell the house from under Vanya and Sonia) and her all-consuming vanity bashes its head against the caretakers self-justification (for taking physical care of the aged parents) and all-consuming self-pity to form the principal conflict of the play.
But the title characters aren’t the only participants in this comedy. Nina, played with pitch-perfect earnestness and flounciness by Rachel Esther Tate, picks up a big load, bridging the gap between Masha’s Hollywood world and Vanya and Sonia’s homely one. She admires Masha but befriends Vanya; she ogles Spike but notices the ever-unnoticeable Sonia. Tate’s acting work feels genuine, finding the signs that tell the audience that she’s playing a teenager, but not sacrificing character depth to do it.
Jessica Frances-Dukes fills out the cast, playing fortune teller and cleaning lady Cassandra and, frankly, carries the comedy of the play from start to finish. Dukes’ Cassandra is refreshing because she knows who she is and she dollops real-world sense into the neurotic world of the title characters. I wish she could have been given more character depth from the script though; the potential of the character seems wasted on stereotype. Speaking of which, what does it say about the American theater that, in our most popular play, the only character of color is an African-American voodoo-practicing cleaning lady? I think it says that we have a long way to go and that perhaps majority White and upper-class audiences should have a long think about why they are laughing.
That’s not the only aspect of the play that asks for a long think. Durang’s language is rapid-fire in a “did you get it?” conglomeration of theatrical and pop culture references, so be prepared for moments when all the other audience members (or only some or no one else in the room) are laughing, but you don’t know why. That’s one of the things that makes Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike very “it,” very “now.” But will it be relevant ten years from now? Who’s to say? Even so, that ten years won’t make its current immediacy sparkle.
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE
April 3 – May 3
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-488-3300
The wordplay can be draining, too. Just like Durang’s signature high-tempo farce, though it’s less evident in this play. Posner does what he can to find beautiful or hilarious moments of physical theater: Vanya and Sonia unknowingly mimicking each other’s movements or Spike’s vapour-inducing inverted pushups. The problem is that the pace of the action never accelerates, only the layers of topical (or atopical references). The stakes never get high enough that I believed that Masha would sell the house from under her siblings or that Vanya would truly go off the rails in self-pity. Sure, the characters change from their introduction to their exits, but there’s no crisis point, there’s nothing dangerous for these characters’ dreams and lives and livelihoods, there’s (spoiler alert) nothing to spoil.
And that’s where Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike deviates from the Chekhovian work that inspires it. Chekhov’s characters undergo traumatic events that make them realize that their dreams are unattainable or that they can never have (or have never had) the life they want. They suffer and are rewarded with “laughter through their tears.” Durang’s characters undergo very little and are rewarded mostly with getting what they want. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons this play is so popular in American theater’s right now: no hard Chekhovian topics like addiction or suicide, just some titillating wordplay, self-effacing ennui, and some beautiful and/or funny people. No risk there.
And there’s a place for that. If you want a heart-felt comedy that will make you feel smart and superior and leave you with a happy ending, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a no-risk proposition; you’ll get what you want. But if you, like me, look for something inspired, something that will make you laugh through difficulty, something that will draw you in with complex action, then the old financial saying applies to this particular play: no risk, no reward.
* American Theatre’ magazine’s end of year numbers are self-selecting and don’t include plays by Shakespeare or A Christmas Carol.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang . Directed by Aaron Posner . Featuring Jessica Frances Dukes, Sherri L. Edelen, Jefferson Farber, Grace Gonglewski, Eric Hissom, and Rachel Esther Tate . Set Designer: Daniel Conway . Costume Designer: Paloma Young . Lighting Designer: Robert Perry .
Original Composition and Sound Design: James Sugg . Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith . New York Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Lindsay Levine, CSA . Stage Manager: Amber Dickerson assisted by Michael D. Ward . Produced by Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater . Reviewed by Alan Katz.