(L-R) Jay Sullivan as Spike and Josie de Guzman as Masha in the Alley Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by John Everett.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Written by: Christopher Durang
Directed By: Jonathan Moscone
Company – Alley Theatre
Run dates: May 23 – June 15, 2014
“Beware the Ideas of March…..beware the middle of the month…..beware of Greeks bearing gifts…..beware of chicken with salmonella”. The warnings come fast and furious out of the mouth of Cassandra, the sassy, voodoo practicing black housekeeper employed by 50-something brother and sister Vanya and Sonia in Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony-winning Best Play, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike now playing at the Alley Theatre. But if Cassandra was dolling out warnings, a more pressing one would have been, beware the shiny allure of award-winning plays as they are not always the gems they’re made out to be. Such is the case here, despite some sure direction by Gregory Boyd, a gorgeous Pennsylvania Farmhouse set by Douglas W. Schmidt and a cast that does it’s best to please us.
The overly obviously comedic Chekhovian homage centres around three middle age age siblings. Vanya (played with affable crankiness by Jeffrey Bean) and Sonia (Sharon Lockwood channeling a sweet but resentful spinster nebbish) have wasted their lives caring for ill parents and now shuffle the days away inside their family home with nothing better to do but bicker and sit in the morning room looking for blue heron. Their lives, such as they are, become disrupted when their third sibling, aging B-list movie and theatre star Masha (the gratingly Gloria Swanson-esque Josie de Guzman) and her young air-headed lover Spike (the washboard-stomached Jay Sullivan) come to visit. Masha is there both to attend a costume party and inform Vanya and Sonia that she is selling the home. After years of paying all the house bills (perhaps as penance for leaving the care of her parents to her siblings) Masha claims that the financial burden is too high for an actress on the down slope of her career. Add in additional characters, the voodoo housekeeper Cassandra (Rachel Holmes making the best out of an ill-fitting character) and Nina (the peppy Sarah Nealis) the pretty, young wanna-be actress from next door and that’s about as interesting as it gets.
Apart from the in your face Chekhov nods (the names of the characters, the farm near a pseudo a cherry orchard, the selling of the family home as subject etc.) there is little of the great writer in the script. Sure there are some giggles to be had (in fairness there were ribald clucks of laughter all around me). Spike’s constant need to disrobe is mildly amusing if not visually appealing. Masha’s Maggie Smith costume for the party and resulting impression is terrific. Cassandra even manages to hit occasional comedic notes despite the unnecessary and uncomfortable inclusion of her character in the play. But even in these mildly humorous instances, there is a distinct sense that no moment in the play feels unplanned or far enough away from the mediocre fare on sit-com television to warrant our attention.
Worse still is the out of left field inclusion of an overly long and angry rant by Vanya about the good old days that includes everything from licking stamps to Ed Sullivan to Ozzie and Harriet. Bean handles the befuddling monologue with aplomb but even he can’t make the writing feel like it has any business in this play. Nor to my mind can Boyd or his cast make it feel like Durang’s Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has any business commanding such a lauded place in theatrical history. Beware the promise of the Tony, my friends. Beware.
For Chekhov lovers – If you’re idea of a clever homage is having Vanya be referred to as “Uncle” at some point in the play, then I guess you’ll be pleased. But with nods this obvious and unoriginal, there is little to be impressed with. SKIP IT
For Chekhov newbies – There is no need to have read one word of Chekhov to get what you need out of this play. Which isn’t a recommendation so much as a fact. Your enjoyment will all depend on your palate for “see the joke coming a million miles away” type humour, nicely acted and neatly packaged. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – With humour that requires you do nothing but sit back and let the easily digestible story amuse you, this may very well be your cup of tea. Add in a beautiful set and a decent cast and money’s worth entertainment might be the verdict. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – What’s worse? The overly broad humour? The painfully obvious dialogue and story arc? The limp noodle Chekhov nods? Or the inclusion of characters and monologues that simply don’t belong? SKIP IT