(L-R): Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David Hull
(L-R): Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David Hull

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, LA

By Christopher Durang

Directed by David Hyde Pierce

With Mark Blum, Christine Ebersole, Shalita Grant, David Hull, Kristine Nielson and Liesel Allen Yeager

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles through March 9, 2014

CenterThreatreGroup.org

It is not possible to write a review of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” without invoking the ghost of Anton Chekhov. Lest one be tempted, within the program playwright Christopher Durang provides a seven-part chronicle of his own lifetime “Chekhov Encounter(s).” Yet Vanya and company is not simply a rehash of one the Russian playwright’s earlier works. Nor is it a smorgasbord of several of them. Think something more modern — a smoothie composed of Chekhov plays and  Greek tragedy poured into a blender with a base of Christopher Durang’s wit and modern sensibility. Flip the switch and out comes “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” tasty, refreshing, and easy to swallow even if it is missing some of the intensity of the original ingredients. But who does not love a smoothie every now and then.

Don’t panic, if you are like the other 99% of us who have been to multiple Chekhov productions, but have a rather hazy and generalized memory  of them, Durang’s send up will still amuse and does not insult.

The setting is Pennsylvania’s Buck’s County, a bucolic fantasyland and a 20th century American approximation of aristocratic 19th century Russian country life, well conjured up by set designer, David Korins.

Middle aged — late middle aged — siblings Vanya [Mark Bloom] and Sonia [Kristine Nielsen] (think siblings from “Uncle Vanya”) are sitting on the porch of the stone house they were brought up in, looking over the pond (an echo of “The Seagull”) and the 10 tree cherry orchard (a puny dig at “the Cherry Orchard,” natch).  You get the idea. Vanya and Sonia stayed at home to care for their declining and now dead parents while their also aging, glamorous, and rarely seen, actor sister Masha [Christine Ebersole] made her way in trashy Hollywood productions and paid for the Buck’s County digs and their life style. Their professor parents, now long dead, named them all for Chekhovian characters. Vanya and Sonia bicker like an old married couple and yearn for a life they might have had. Masha sweeps in, pretty boy toy Spike [David Hull] in tow. She has been invited to a new neighbor’s costume party. The neighbor only wants “famous people” to attend, therefore they have not been included. However Masha has it all planned and costumed out: she will be Snow White a la Disney; Spike will be Prince Charming (what else?), and the siblings will be two of the dwarfs. Perfect except Masha is too old for the part, Vanya is only willing to be a dwarf if he can be Doc, and Sonia — who, incidentally is only an adopted sister, bipolar (the disease du jour), and barely acknowledged by Masha — refuses to be Dopey. She will only be the evil queen as played by Maggie Smith. Only Spike, whose claim to fame is that he almost got to act on “Entourage 2,” is delighted with the plan.

So where is the Greek tragedy? It comes with Cassandra (Shalita Grant) the hyper active Jamaican maid whose constant prophecies of gloom and doom in fact foreshadow real world happenings. She is an energetic piece of work. Grant captures her spirit, even if the prophecies spill out at a break neck almost impossible to register speed.

Meanwhile Spike, whose narcissism exceeds even Masha’s, strips to his skivvies, flexes his every muscle to be admired, especially Vanya an uncomfortable and reserved homosexual, trots down to the pond and returns with sweet and lovely Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) whom he has invited to the party. You can see the fumes rising out of Masha’s head.

As good as the acting is, the evening really belongs to Sonia and Vanya. Kristine Nielsen’s impression of Maggie Smith, gussied up in thrift shop rhinestones is so dead on that if you were to close your eyes — but don’t — you could swear Downton Abbey is playing in the next room. She has not had a date in years, if ever, but she is the belle of the party and enchants a man at the party who calls her for a date thinking that voice really belongs to her. After the party sweet Nina, who willingly wore the dwarf costume, has coxed Vanya to show her a play he has been working on and then to do a reading for the rest of the household. Clueless Spike starts “multitasking” on his iPhone sending Vanya through the roof. Mark Bloom is splendid. Vanya abandons the play and unleashes a tirade about what life once was. “We wrote letters … we licked stamps …” He perseverates on the stamps, which is hysterical, while delivering a pointed nostalgic diatribe on the casualties of technology. It resonates with much of the audience and may be worth the price of admission.

A lot happens, and but nothing really changes in the 2 1/2 hours of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Will you remember it any better than you can recall the plot variations between the Chekhovs you have seen? I doubt it. Is it Durang’s best? No. Could it stand to be trimmed? I think so. But is it worth a trip downtown? I’ll say this: Vanya and company are quite entertaining.

 

Los Angeles, CA
Weinstein is a clinical psychologist who teaches in the medical school at UCLA. She also holds a master's degree in Urban Studies and has a strong interest in history and architecture, as well as the theater.