Christopher Durang’s Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike has arrived at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and though it does not quite reach the level of brilliance of V&S&M&S’s Los Angeles premiere earlier this year, the 2013 Best Play Tony winner proves a hilarious, crowd-pleasing treat (especially for the over-50 set) and a definite winner for The Old Globe.
Rest assured, you don’t have to be an Anton Chekhov fan (or even all that familiar with The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, or The Cherry Orchard) to pick up on just about every laugh-line in Durang’s third Broadway comedy (following 1982’s Beyond Therapy and 1996’s Sex And Longing).
Yes, its sibling trio (the first three names of the title) have monikers straight out of Chekhov, and yes, mention is made of a cherry orchard, and yes, there is a play-within-a-play borrowed from The Seagull.
Still, even those who don’t know their Cherry Orchard from Cherries Jubilee will soon find themselves quite taken by 58-year-old Vanya (Martin Moran) and his adopted 52-year-old sister Sonia (Marcia DeBonis), he gay, she frumpy, and both eternally single, having devoted fifteen of the best years of their lives to caring for their elderly, eventually Alzheimer’s-stricken, now deceased parents, during which time their slightly younger sister Masha (Candy Buckley) spent her days and nights off gallivanting around the world making movies and money, the latter of which has kept Vanya and Sonia comfortably ensconced in their Bucks County country house, movie star sis not only paying the bills but giving brother and sister a monthly stipend.
Not surprisingly, years of cohabitating have created a long-married-couple dynamic between the oft-bickering siblings.
Take for instance this morning, its comfortable, comforting routine disturbed by Vanya’s unprecedented decision to pour his own coffee. (“I have two pleasant moments every day in my fucking life, and one of them is bringing you coffee,” sis informs him in a snit.) With annoying disruptions like this one, it’s no wonder Sonia has been having nightmares lately—“I dreamt I was 52 and I wasn’t married”—no matter that this particular bad dream happens to be true.
At the very least, Vanya and Sonia’s farmhouse-turned-country home is kept spic-and-span by sassy black cleaning lady Cassandra (Haneefah Wood), blessed—or cursed—with a soothsayer’s ability to foretell the future, or at least so she maintains whenever seized by a paroxysm that sets her off saying sooths. (“I see doom and destruction swirling around you. Beware of Hootie Pie. I don’t know what Hootie Pie is. I just know you must beware of it.”)
And so Vanya and Sonia’s life has gone, day by day, week by week, year by year, in a reassuring if bothersome monotony that will today be disrupted by that rarest of events, a visit from the glamorous, globetrotting, five-times married Masha, her 20something actor/boy-toy Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks) in tow and a piece of bad news in store for her unwitting siblings.
It’s not that Masha hasn’t been thinking about the boring pair. (“I often miss you. I’m in a play or a movie, and I think of my dear Sonia, and think, oh, I miss her! I must call her. Then I get called to the set and months go by and I forget to call.”) It’s just that “life happens, no?” and Masha has a life, one which tonight includes a party for the rich and famous at “the Dorothy Parker house up the road,” a costume party that Vanya and Sonia are welcome to attend should they agree to dress as dwarfs to Masha’s Snow White and Spike’s Prince Charming.
With a lover at least twenty years her junior who’s more than willing to strip down to his tight black boxers at a moment’s notice, the better to show off bulging biceps, rippling pecs, and a six-pack that just won’t quit, it’s no wonder that Masha isn’t all that thrilled when young Spike returns from a dip in the pond accompanied by fresh-young-neighbor Nina (Allison Layman), herself a would-be actress and Masha’s biggest fan.
Before long Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike (and Nina) have headed off in costume for the house up the road, though it turns out to be Nina in dwarf mode, Sonia having insisted on going as Snow White’s beautiful evil queen, or rather as Snow White’s beautiful evil queen as played by Maggie Smith in California Suite mode.
And that’s just the start of one of the funniest, most satisfying comedies you’re likely to see all year.
Durang’s characters are quirky, real, and easy to identify with, particularly if you’ve reached Vanya And Sonia And Masha’s age. It’s true that you might not want to spend a lifetime with any of them, but two hours and a quarter is just fine indeed, and by the time Sonia ends the play with a line not quite out of Chekhov, brother and sisters have gone on a life-changing journey with us along for the ride.
Broadway’s Jessica Stone has based her direction on Nicholas Martin’s Tony-nominated original, and if it ends up more or less a carbon-copy (as was David Hyde Pierce’s in the play’s Los Angeles Premiere), imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, and both Stone’s direction and her cast prove first-rate.
Buckley won a Best Featured Actress Scenie for her 2010 performance as a “Mommie Dearest with a heart” in South Coast Rep’s Doctor Cerberus and she is every bit as fabulous at The Old Globe as the glamorous, self-centered Masha. Moran could add a bit more prickle to what is now a tad-too-sweet Vanya, but when he lets loose with the doozy of an 11th Hour child-of-the-‘50s rant Durang has written for his fictional alter ego, the stage-and-screen vet brings the house down with cheers. DeBonnis’s sweetly-sourly frumpy Sonia would be perfectly marvelous had I not seen Tony nominee Kristine Nielsen’s subtle brilliance in the role, but there is time for DeBonis and her castmates to hone their performances.
The oh-so hunky Weaks could not make for a sexier or more winning Spike, not only displaying a to-die-for physique but the acting chops of a Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company’s M.F.A. Program grad as well. Old Globe/USD M.F.A Program student Layman nails Nina’s starstruck wonder and endearing naiveté to perfection. Last but not least is Wood, a wild-and-crazy delight as Cassandra. (If she adds just a tad more “seizure” to her moments of divine inspiration a la Tony nominee Shalita Grant, she’ll score a perfect 10.)
Scenic designer David Korins’ gorgeously detailed indoor-outdoor set is presumably the same as his New York original as I would guess are David Weiner’s pitch-perfect lighting design and Mark Bennett’s effervescent original music and topnotch sound design. Gabriel Berry’s terrific costumes are new for The Old Globe.
Casting is by Caparelliotis Casting. Bryan Hunt is associate director. Annette Yé is stage manager and Amanda Salmons assistant stage manager.
Having established his reputation as a comedy writer extraordinaire with the Obie Award-winning Sister Mary Ignatius, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and Betty’s Summer Vacation, Christopher Durang has given us his most general-audience-friendly play in Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike. For those who may have missed it in L.A., or who simply want the joy of a second visit to Bucks County, Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike is well worth a drive down San Diego way.
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
May 24, 2014
Photos: Jim Cox