“If there were antidepressants, Chekhov wouldn’t have had anything to write about” is one of many lines in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that are so funny that you’ll LOL.
That one of America’s greatest comic playwrights, Christopher Durang, keeps us in stitches is no surprise, and it is rather impressive that Durang, whose career spans four decades, is still writing scripts this funny and smart.
Vanya won the Tony Award for best play in 2013 and makes its area premiere in a ravishing and beautifully paced production at Uptown Players, directed by B.J. Cleveland.
In case the play’s title isn’t your first clue, Vanya plays with the concept of Chekhovian drama, in which ennui is fodder for simmering family drama that isn’t as muted as the Russian writer effortlessly draws it.
Vanya (Bob Hess) and Sonia (Wendy Welch) are half-siblings who live in the Bucks County, Pa., cottage (a terrific set by Clare Floyd DeVries) in which they took care of their parents (Chekhov scholars, wouldn’t you know), subsidized by their sister Masha (Diana Sheehan), a world-famous actress.
The play begins with Vanya and Sonia lounging in the front room, looking out the window at the lake and expounding on nothing in particular with Chekhovian stream-of-consciousness.
The drama begins when Masha pays a visit with her boy-toy Spike (Evan Fentriss), a himbo with a six-pack, in tow. It also comes with their maid, Cassandra (a hilarious Nadine Marissa), who like her Greek myth namesake is prone to prophecy. Durang’s script says this character can be any race, and Cleveland has made her Jamaican and as outlandish as one of Moliere’s nosy, all-knowing maids.
Durang does more than reference classic theater; he creates a contemporary comedy that pays homage to it in a delicious, theatrical goulash.
And although there are many outrageous moments and costumes (nicely done by Suzi Cranford, especially the party outfits), it never turns into a parody. It could; you almost expect the blue heron that Vanya and Sonia rhapsodize over to end up plunking down dead on their porch a la Chekhov’s famous water bird in The Seagull.
Durang has balanced parody and homage before, notably with For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, his take on The Glass Menagerie, but never has he managed the feat so beautifully as now.
In the play’s finest scene, Cassandra and ingénue neighbor Nina (Julia Golder in an honest and lovely turn) read a play Vanya has written, a tribute to Konstantin’s play in The Seagull. Vanya’s tirade when dim-bulb Spike quickly shows his disinterest is genius. It’s everything you’ve wanted to say to a younger generation whose attention span won’t let them go more than two seconds without tweeting and who can’t appreciate the value of art with real craft driving it.
Hess’ passionate performance is nothing short of brilliant in that scene — the passive observer suddenly has the fire of a wood demon. He’s matched by Welch, fantastic as the underappreciated caterpillar who transforms to a butterfly but who is too eager to have her wings clipped again. As Masha, Sheehan jumps on the narcissism train quickly and adeptly rides along with the play’s biggest arc.
It’s the best production of a play that Uptown Players has ever done, and it doesn’t hurt that the script is one that, like the great writer from which it takes its inspiration, is destined for classic status.