There are no shared memories anymore. Such is the thinking of the character Vanya in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, his comedic take on the characters and values of Chekov. The play opened first off-Broadway in 2012, transferring in 2013 to Broadway where it deservedly won the Tony as Best Play (with an undeservedly brief run of just over 200 performances), now being given its New England premiere by Trinity Repertory Company in Providence. As directed by Curt Columbus, the company’s Artistic Director, it’s a non-stop cornucopia of laughs with a knowing nod to what civilization has lost. While Durang places the action in a farm house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he takes aim at many of the current conventions that afflict all of us, especially anyone connected with the theater and what passes for pop culture. Though the setting and mood is Chekovian (he even states in his stage directions “there used to be a shed for peacocks, but the peacocks are long gone”), his wit and wisdom are aimed straight at the jugular of the modern lack of communication and connection. The barbs come fast and furious, most of them amazingly close to the truth.
At the center of the work is Vanya (Brian McEleney) who laments that it is his fate to “worry about the future, (and) miss the past”. He and his adopted sister Sonia (Janice Duclos), have given fifteen years to caring for their elderly parents, now deceased, and are consequently numb. They have also kept the farm going, with long distance financing from their sister Masha (Phyllis Kay), who has become a film star of sorts, and who describes live theater as having to act “loudly, so they can hear you” and declaims that “life happens” (to which Sonia retorts “not here it doesn’t”). Masha has descended upon her siblings with a hunky young stud, Spike (Mark Larson), who shares and even manages to exceed her narcissism and is an aspiring actor with well-developed abs and an undeveloped brain (missing Sonia’s meaning when she commiserates that he almost got a television role: “maybe you’ll come close to getting another part soon”). They’re visited by yet another aspiring young thespian, Nina (Sylvia Kates), and aided by an aptly-named cleaning lady Cassandra (Tangela Large). There is a seventh unseen character by the name of Hootie Pie, Masha’s personal assistant, described in one incantation by Cassandra as “the spawn of the devil”.
Since, as in Chekov, the main characters would probably end up doing nothing if left to their own devices, the members of the supporting cast prove to be important catalysts, with Large looming laughably, Kates providing an off-center daffiness, and Larson a clueless ditziness. They’re all wonderful. But, then, so are the leads. McEleney and Kay (who played brother and sister back in a 2006 Trinity Rep “Cherry Orchard”) are terrific foils for one another as they are for Duclos, who has a great deadpan delivery of many of Durang’s best lines (“I hope you’re not going to give Chekov references all day”, for one). The technical elements are all wonderful, from the clever Set Design by Michael McGarty (with its intentionally mismatched furniture), to the amusing Costume Design by Olivera Gajic (with a nod to Disney), to the well-coordinated Lighting Design by Josh Epstein and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz.
As it is for all of us, change is hard, and the family here has resisted it. As one character puts it near the beginning of the play, “if everyone was on antidepressants, Chekov would have nothing to write about”. The same could be said for Durang, of course, who has endowed his own characters with varying degrees of the morbid and melodramatic. And it’s about that lack of shared memories. Towards the end of the play, Vanya, who’s been fairly sedate up to this point, begins a very lengthy rant about his nostalgic loss, encompassing Senor Wences, Annette Funicello, Darlene Gillespie, and especially (and accurately) the fate of Disney protégé Tommy Kirk. Yet even his fond relish of popular culture such as“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (with its plots about such events as a pair of hardly adventurous missing socks, with the family seemingly, in retrospect, all medicated) is tinged with regret. Notably, he laments watching “news reports on what you already think” and that theater isn’t “part of the national consciousness anymore”.
Durang has a virtually infallible recall and uncanny ear for those shared memories that helped define us as a nation, for better or for worse. But at least there was definition. With this extraordinarily, outrageously funny play, here extraordinarily and outrageously well performed, one can appreciate more the joy, the humor, and humanity that is Chekov. Durang obviously loves what he is sending up, and even leaves us with an exhortation (from Nina, no less) to “always get your hopes up”, accompanied by the Beatles with “Here comes the sun”. Fittingly, though, his ultimate disgust is bestowed on Facebook, and, by extension, the basically antisocial world of social media. To which one can only add, this play earns the ultimate praise: LOL.