Fort Worth — “If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about.” Ditto for playwright Christopher Durang, whose long string of plays finds the funny in all sorts of human quirks, angsts and oddities. Hooray for the strange things we do and the priceless things we say; without them, who among us could face another Thanksgiving dinner?
Stage West’s comic and kind-hearted production of Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike finds this sometimes-biting playwright in a mellow mood. It smartly imports two actors from the well-reviewed version of VSMS Uptown Players did last year—Wendy Welch as the Eeyore-ish Sonia and Nadine Marissa as woe-predicting housekeeper Cassandra—and does equally well with the rest of the cast, which includes a Baylor drama professor and a Texas Christian University student, both making Stage West debuts.
And then there’s Spike. A critic who will remain nameless (I do not refer to myself) sputtered at intermission: “Where did they find a piece of beefcake like that—who can act, too?” More about those muscles later.
First things first: No, you needn’t be well-versed in the plays of Anton Chekhov—classics such as Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard or The Seagull. But it does make it funnier to know that the late-19th-century Chekhov is a major theatrical source of the mash-up of tears and laughter we now call “dramedy,” and that his pre-revolutionary Russian characters tend to be genteel folk (small estate owners, doctors, actors) who live in small towns or the countryside—when they’d rather be in Moscow. Life has disappointed them and money is often tight, but you won’t find them hanging from the rafters. Mostly they talk, gloomily, about all they’ve missed.
Oh, boo hoo, right? But somehow, because Chekhov was so utterly sure this was funny stuff, it is.
And so it goes with Durang. His middle-aged Vanya (Steven Pounders) and Sonia (Wendy Welch) gripe and squabble, but with such toddler-sized impotence we have to find it funny. They spent many years caring for their late parents at the family’s vintage country place. Now they just stay on, watching for a special bird to come to the pond each day, sharing little rituals, squabbling like a pair of married octogenarians. He’s gay, she’s adopted, and their conversation is full of regret. “Our lives are over, aren’t they?” moans Sonia. “Yes, I think so,” replies Vanya, cheerily matter-of fact.
It’s just the moment, in Chekhovian time, for someone successful and glamorous to turn up—to make them feel even worse. Enter movie-star sister Masha (Shannon McGrann), whose money pays the bills for the house and her siblings’ stay-at-home lifestyle. The much-married (and slightly past sell date) Masha has come for a costume party at a neighbor’s house with her current squeeze, a walking six-pack named Spike (Haulston Mann).
And she might have more on her mind, plans that would upend Vanya and Sonia’s quiet life. If only they’d listen to the very non-Chekhovian Cassandra, who keeps comically prognosticating through it all.
Masha’s a brat who pitches a fit when others don’t fall in line: she wants to dress as Disney’s Snow White for the party, with Vanya and Sonia tagging along as dwarves. It’s a hot day, too, so wouldn’t you know, Spike has to peel down to his BVDs for a swim. Mann, seen as none-too-bright lover Claudio in Shakespeare Dallas’ Much Ado About Nothing last year, again plays a dim bulb, but to good effect. His muscles-on-muscles bod keeps Spike the center of all eyes, especially those of Vanya and pretty young neighbor Nina (an aspiring actress winsomely played by Amber Marie Flores), as he strips, and strips, and strips again—twerking, posing, using his belt like a tassel, though it’s standing in for a different body part. It doesn’t matter to Spike (or us) if he’s gay, bi, or omnisexual; he just wants to know we’re all watching and worshipping at the shrine of H-I-M.
For the party, Sonia instead turns up in slinky sequins as Snow White’s Evil Queen—sort of. Masha feels threatened by this sudden sisterly competition, and by Spike’s obvious yen for Nina. Payback’s a bitch—didn’t Chekhov say that too?
Act Two, of course, is quite literally the after-party, full of the usual: bickering, misunderstandings, and a brothers-and-sisters moment in the end. There’s a play-within-a-play from Vanya (shades of Konstantin’s Symbolist work in The Seagull), in which Nina plays a lovely white-robed…molecule? And best of all, Durang gives voice to his own inner Boomer (as in “baby boom”) with a generational rant that Vanya speaks—but we know it’s the playwright letting it fly. Sixty-somethings in the seats will raise a fist and think “yes!” And everyone of a different cohort—older or younger—well, you just go ahead and roll those eyes. Preach it, brother.
Director Harry Parker of TCU makes a lively Stage West debut, tweaking cast and text so even the less-obvious comic turns come through. Dennis Canright fills the broad stage with fieldstone and slightly shabby old-money touches, and Michael Robinson’s costumes are eccentric and varied, with special kudos to Vanya’s old-school nightshirt and Nina’s “Grecian urn” getup.
Pounders and Welch make a great pair. There’s something bright-eyed and young about Pounders as Vanya; he cranes his neck like a baby bird taking in the world. He’s wistful, but we always have the feeling he might be (forever, perhaps) teetering on the verge of feeling happy. Welch is a delightful mope as Sonia, and her tearful, tentative smile when something does happen makes us want to dance. Nobody would blame her if she made a career of this role from now on; she’s that good.
McGrann is part villain, part big baby as Masha. She’s easy to hate, but her wild insecurity keeps us (a bit) sympathetic. We enjoy her comeuppance, and look for the moment she might begin to remember how fun it is to have a brother and sister. Flores as Nina has a goofy sweetness; Mann as Spike needs to take that twerk on the road; and Marissa as the voodoo prophet brings a completely random note of broad-as-a-barn comedy to it all. She seems to have been plucked from the West Indies cast of Blithe Spirit, but Durang says the character can be any age, any race, and she is a soothsayer, after all, so this interpretation works.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the Tony Award for Best Play after its 2013 Broadway run, and already has had so many productions it’s starting to feel like a classic. We can stand back and say it didn’t (quite) deserve all this fuss; there are points when the comedy is a bit labored or the joke goes on too long. But it’s a witty, funny play, made better by this very fine cast—and on any day of the year, that should be enough.