The spirit and plays of Anton Chekhov pervade Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy that has just opened at GableStage.
Savvy theatergoers who know Chekhov (and his plays Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Three Sisters) will enjoy an extra layer of engagement with Durang’s absurdist hit. But you needn’t know Madame Arkadina from Maggie Smith to laugh at Vanya and Sonia.
For some, Durang’s work is an acquired taste. Smart and savagely satirical, such plays as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Beyond Therapy and The Marriage of Bette and Boo are funny yet merciless as they target religion, psychotherapy, family life and more.
The play focuses on a trio of siblings, two of whom live in the splendid stone-front family home in Bucks County, Pa. (the gorgeous set is by long-time GableStage designer Lyle Baskin). The unemployed Vanya (Avi Hoffman) and his adopted sister Sonia (Laura Turnbull), named after Chekhov characters by their late theater-loving college professor parents, have moved into middle age without really living. He is gay and lonely, she’s straight and lonely — and, what’s worse, Sonia hopelessly pines for Vanya when the two aren’t bickering.
Their soothsayer-housekeeper Cassandra (Jade Wheeler) warns of trouble on the horizon, and as with her Greek mythological namesake, is mostly ignored. Yet she is, as always, right: Vanya and Sonia’s glamorous actress-sister Masha (Margarita Coego) shows up with her magnificently hunky toy boy Spike (Domenic Servidio) in tow and plans to sell the house on her mind. The sixth character, willowy aspiring actress Nina (Hayley Bruce), is the visiting niece of the couple next door, and her presence sets off raging jealousy in Masha.
Stylistically, the performances are quite varied. Turnbull and Hoffman, spouses in real life, give Vanya and Sonia its empathy-evoking heart, and in terms of acting, they’re the production’s great strength. Turnbull’s Sonia looks somehow glamorous yet a little sad in a party getup (the terrific costumes are by Ellis Tillman), and her phone conversation with a would-be suitor is truly touching. Hoffman gets a magnificent monologue about life in the 1950s, and he makes it the tour de force that Durang intended.
Bruce, a recent New World School of the Arts grad, is also more realistic and sympathetic with her innocent, enthusiastic Nina. Still a New World student, the sculpted Servidio has a preening blast playing Spike, who is dumb as a box of rocks and hot as molten lava. Playing a surprisingly calculating male bimbo,the often hilarious Servidio makes it tough to look anywhere else when he’s onstage, and not just because he’s sometimes wearing nothing except black Calvin Klein briefs.
Wheeler and Coego play exaggerated characters, and at times they seem to be in a different, more overtly farcical play. Wheeler is witheringly amusing when Cassandra is putting her privileged employers in their places, but the way she physically embodies the character’s prophetic messages is just odd. The attractive Coego gets Masha’s relentless narcissism just right, but her exaggerated acting style and sometimes grating voice (though Coego has no accent, think Sofia Vergara when she’s bellowing) make Masha more of a cartoon villain than Durang intends.