Huntingon's "Vanya" et al: Duranged Drollery Revisited

Tyler Lansing Weaks, Marcia DeBonis, Candy Buckley, Allison Layman & Martin Moran
in "Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike"
(photo: Jim Fox)

As this critic noted in an earlier review of a production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, there are no shared memories anymore, at least in the thinking of the character Vanya in Durang’s 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 a disappointingly and undeservedly brief run of just over 200 performances), now being given its Boston premiere by Huntington Theatre Company. It’s helmed by Jessica Stone, who stepped in when the late beloved Nicholas Martin became ill and was unable to repeat his Tony-nominated direction; the program notes that this production is “based on the Broadway Direction of Nicholas Martin”. In Stone’s capable hands, it continues to provide virtually non-stop laughs, with a knowing nod to what civilization has lost. While Durang places the action in a home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he takes aim at many of the current conventions that afflict all of us, especially anyone connected with the theater as well as whatever passes for pop culture. Though the setting and mood is Chekovian (he even states in his amusing stage directions “there used to be a shed for peacocks, but the peacocks are long gone”), his witty and wise barbs aim straight for the jugular, especially about the modern lack of communication and connection; they continue to come fast and furiously, agonizingly close to the truth. As Stone states in the program, “the truth is almost always funny mixed with pain”; the pain you’ll feel is from holding your sides with laughter. You couldn’t ask for a funnier antidote to the winter blahs.

At the center of the play is Vanya (Martin Moran) who laments that it is his fate to “worry about the future, (and) miss the past”. He and his adopted sister Sonia (Marcia DeBonis), have given fifteen years to caring for their elderly parents, now deceased, and are consequently numb. They have also kept the family home going, with long distance financing from their sister Masha (Candy Buckley), 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 (Tyler Lansing Weaks), 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, their neighbor Nina (Allison Layman), and aided by an aptly-named cleaning lady Cassandra (Haneefah Wood). 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 supporting cast members prove to be very important to the play, with Wood providing both daffiness and ditziness. All the members of this cast are wonderful, led by Moran and Buckley, terrific foils for one another as they are for DeBonis, who has a great 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 superb, from the gorgeous Set Design by David Korins to the Costume Design by Gabriel Berry (with apologies to Disney), to the Lighting Design by David Weiner, and Sound Design and Original Music by Mark Bennett.

As it is for all of us, change is hard, and the family here has resisted it. As Sonia 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 ten-minute hilarious rant about his nostalgic losses, 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 Nelson family seemingly, in retrospect, all highly 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’s ear for those shared memories that helped define us as a nation is acute. With this outrageously funny play, here so impeccably performed, one can appreciate the joy, the humor, and humanity that is essentially Chekovian but difficult to discern. Durang loves what he is sending up, and 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, his ultimate disdain falls on Facebook, and, by extension, the antisocial world of social media. To which one can only add, this play, as it did on first viewing, earns the ultimate contemporary praise: LOL.

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