Once upon a time Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would’ve been considered the stuff of collegiate spoof—a spiritual cousin to events like the University of Chicago’s annual latke vs. hamentaschen debate. Lavishing loads of erudition on a little conceit, the comedy pulls bits from a variety of sources, Aeschylus to Walt Disney, but particularly Anton Chekhov’s four theatrical masterpieces (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and Three Sisters). Half the joke is playing Name That Reference along with the waggish don who wrote it, Christopher Durang.
But somehow this alumni-weekend novelty got blown up into a 150-minute two-act. And won the 2013 Tony Award for best play. Ah for the days when people took a certain level of literacy for granted.
Not that V+S+M+S isn’t amusing. Especially in the current Goodman Theatre production—which takes exuberant advantage of the many opportunities Durang (pro that he is) provides—parts of it are hilarious. And yes, there’s the English majorish satisfaction of picking up on allusions. What the evening lacks, though, is what Chekhov himself had in spades: a sensitivity to subtext that would make us feel like there’s something to stick around for once we’ve sussed the concept. As it is V+S+M+S seems pitched toward absurdism lite. Crazy sweet, with every intention laid out in plain sight. For a longer time than seems absolutely necessary.
Very much but not quite like the Vanya and Sonia in Uncle Vanya, Durang’s Vanya and Sonia are siblings (children of theater-mad professors, hence the names) who’ve spent their best years tending an estate owned by somebody else—in their case, a renovated farmhouse in present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Having dutifully ushered Mom and Dad through their decline and into the next world, the pair are at a loss for what to do with themselves. Just as they’re feeling their discontent, they receive a visit (very much but not quite like the folks in The Seagull) from sister Masha, an aging movie star, and her airhead, beefcake boyfriend Spike, whose greatest claim to fame so far is having almost won a role in a sequel to the Entourage movie.
Masha is the actual owner of the Bucks County house. Yet very much but not quite like Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, she’s seen better days financially, and so plans to sell—a move that, exactly like the house sale in Uncle Vanya, would put Vanya and Sonia on the street. Durang also throws in (a) a young neighbor named Nina, who, like Nina in The Seagull, dreams of being an actress, and (b) a black cleaning lady named Cassandra, who’s got nothing whatever to do with Chekhov but compensates by going into fits where she divines the future just like the Cassandra in Greek mythology.
It’s a jolly if cartoonishly conceived setup, and Durang goes a long way toward keeping it interesting. Cassandra gets a funny bout with a voodoo doll and an extremely long pin. A costume party offers some beautifully ludicrous sight gags—as well as a very nearly profound one when young Nina speaks lyrically about the wonder of life and her hopes for the future while dressed as Dopey from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Ross Lehman‘s endearing Vanya gets the gift of a long, rangy, very boom-generation rant about the hell of social media and the ecstasy of licked postage stamps, Davy Crockett hats, TV puppet shows, Wite-Out, Señor Wences (look him up), and the almost Beckettian “adventures” of Ozzie and Harriet.
That last epic utterance is repetitive in a completely justifiable way, Vanya having lost the cool of a lifetime. Other instances of same are harder to take, notably in the overlong first act. As I say, V+S+M+S stretches a clever thought beyond its capacities.
It’s left to director Steve Scott and an unbridled cast, then, to get us the rest of the way through. Which is precisely what they do. E. Fay Butler is a hoot, going astonishingly (one might even say bravely) big as the Caribbean-inflected Cassandra. With his talented pectorals, Jordan Brown turns Spike into a kind of sacred monster of narcissism, while Mary Beth Fisher makes an equally appalling Masha—the mother to his Hollywood Grendel. Rebecca Buller’s Nina is appropriately adorable. And when he’s not pushed to the point of spewing, Lehman’s Vanya forms the pillowy heart of the piece. But it’s Janet Ulrich Brooks‘s Sonia that holds your attention: twitching, cringing, yet somehow never overdoing. Somehow at home and comfortable with her despair. There comes a point when sexy Spike tosses a sweaty top Sonia’s way, and what does she do? She folds it. That’s just so perfect. v