Even during Anton Chekhov’s life, people were parodying his plays. They’re easily identifiable targets, with their Russian aristocrats sitting in drawing rooms with their ennui and commenting on the weather. Of course, the parodists overlooked the fact that Chekhov was a pretty fair parodist himself, targeting the sentimental streak in the drama of his time. Knowing this gives an extra sting to Stage West’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but even if you’ve never heard of Chekhov, you’ll probably still find this comedy enjoyable.
The play revolves around three middle-aged siblings whose names come from professor parents with a fondness for Chekhov’s plays. Gay oldest brother Vanya (Steven Pounders) remembers his dad: “Father was so angry when you didn’t know something, but what 7-year-old knows who wrote The Imaginary Invalid? Father became so enraged when I said Neil Simon.”
He and adopted younger sister Sonia (Wendy Welch) have been bound to their house in Bucks County, Pa., taking care of said parents after they developed Alzheimer’s. Now those parents have died, leaving the children unable to imagine careers for themselves and financially dependent on youngest sister Masha (Shannon J. McGrann), a fading Hollywood star. Things come to a head during a weekend when Masha unexpectedly drops in with her new and much-younger boyfriend Spike (Haulston Mann).
Vanya’s zinger in the preceding paragraph might clue you in that the play is by the esteemed playwright Christopher Durang. It works quite well as farce, especially in the first act. The siblings at home are quite upstaged by the visitors, with McGrann capturing the overbearing flamboyance that actresses occasionally display while layering that with a certain neurosis about getting older (hence the boy toy). To Sonia’s Chekhovian lament, “We long for what the world cannot give. We are in our twilight years, and we realize we have never lived,” Masha responds with a brisk, “Oh, I wish I had time to sit still. I’m always busy.”
Meanwhile, Mann strips to his underwear on multiple occasions and gets a couple of showoff comic scenes, one where he’s told to do a “reverse striptease” and the other when he repeats his performance from a failed audition for a spinoff of Entourage. If you’ve ever known any idiot actors, this performance will make you nod in recognition. Also stealing scenes is Nadine Marissa as the siblings’ housekeeper Cassandra, who lives up to her name by delivering oracular, freaked-out prophecies of doom: “O mystery and misery descend upon me like a thundercloud pregnant with rain and Jupiter’s arrows! … My car needs to be inspected. … O wretches, O mystery, O magical mystery tour! … I see disaster ahead for all of you! Lunch is served in about 20 minutes.”
Chekhov always gave his servant characters identifiable tics. He’d approve of this.
The shortcomings in this production are baked into the original material. This may have won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2013, but it doesn’t hold together. After a costume party in which Masha dresses up as Snow White and insists (not quite successfully) that everybody else dress as dwarves, Durang tries to turn serious with the material, and it doesn’t come off. Lonely Sonia snagging a date for herself doesn’t have the power that it should despite Welch’s committed performance. Vanya’s climactic outburst at the modern world comes off as a venting of spleen by the playwright rather an old man’s lament that society has changed into something he doesn’t recognize.
Still, the ultimate test of any comedy is whether it’s funny, and Durang seldom fails on that front. Director Harry Parker doesn’t make the most dynamic use of Dennis Canright’s handsome two-level set, but he does know where the laughs are and knows how to get them out of his actors. That is enough to make Stage West’s latest production a funny evening at the theater.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Thru Jul 12 at Stage West,
821 W Vickery St, FW. $22.