Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at GableStage: A Wonderfully Meandering Theatrical Encyclopedia
Jade Wheeler and Avi Hoffman in GableStage's production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Photo by George Schiavone
Of the six plays in GableStage's 2013-14 season, Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was its most anticipated production for hard-core theatergoers — and not just because the play won just about every award for which it was nominated in 2013, including the Tony for best play. It's also because Vanya is a giddy stroke job for theatergoers, a soothing and bottomless repository of pop-culture and high-culture esoterica, a pleasurable massage of those areas of the brain harboring long-dormant memories of ventriloquist Señor Wences and Chekhov plays and stage-to-screen Neil Simon adaptations.
This is not a traditional play — wherein realistic characters navigate a three-act narrative — so much as a batty, self-conscious compilation of Durang's obsessions, retrieved from his mental recesses and projected straight into ours. It's a play in which nothing happens for the longest time, yet in the hands of a flawless cast and Joseph Adler's extraordinary direction, it's perfection.
Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull play Vanya and Sonia, a brother and his adopted sister, both of them fatalistic, 50-something sad sacks wasting away in an enviable farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The set design is one of Lyle Baskin's best in recent memory — a staggering, earthen, three-dimensional, two-story construction that seems to dwarf the space around it, supplemented by lovely lighting from Steve Welsh that casts the shadows of unseen foliage on the edifice's sunlit stone façade.
It's difficult to be miserable in such an environment, but a typical morning for Vanya and Sonia involves bickering, pining, shattering coffee mugs, and declarating immutable despair, delivered with heaping doses of self-reflexive exposition and archaic diction. Only Durang, a master of stylized stage comedy, could get away with a line such as "Your sadness is very heavy this morning, Sonia" in a play set in modern America. Soon afterward, Cassandra (Jade Wheeler), their motley-dressed housekeeper and lay soothsayer, bursts into the living room and actually says, without irony, "Beware the Ides of March!"
It's important to note that while the awareness that we're watching a play, along with its concomitant sense of artificiality, is central to Vanya and Sonia, the characters don't seem to know they're stuck in a theatrical fiction, which makes their adventures all the more tragicomic. To Adler's credit, his direction is never exaggerated or campy; we understand we're being winked at without the characters actually doing the winking.
Anyway, Vanya and Sonia, along with other characters in the play, are named for creations in the Chekhov canon — their late parents, we learn, were college professors active in community theater — and the play contains references to Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and possibly others I wasn't studied enough to catch. (Theatergoers with a basic knowledge of the great Russian's plays will get bonus points, but it's by no means necessary for your enjoyment.)
What little plot Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike contains arrives in the form of those latter two names. Masha (Margarita Coego) is the sister of Vanya and Sonia in this strange family; she's a wannabe stage actress who instead became a global celebrity by starring as a nymphomaniac murderess in a string of Hollywood blockbusters. It's her income that pays for the family manse and provides her slugabed siblings with a monthly stipend.
Today, Masha has paid an unexpected visit to the family home — with her preening, impossibly buff new boy toy, Spike, (Domenic Servidio) in tow — trumpeting news that seems to confirm Cassandra's dramatic omens: She plans to sell the house, leaving Vanya and Sonia in the lurch.
To reveal much more would be to spoil the manic fun. It suffices to say that, at two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission, Vanya and Sonia is one of GableStage's longest productions in some time, yet it feels like the quickest — so beautifully paced is Adler's direction and so assured is his cast's cohesion.
But within the ensemble work, most of the actors are granted at least one tour de force moment. For Hoffman, it's a crazed monologue, near the end of the play, in which he lurches into a spastic but controlled tirade, fetishizing the milquetoast entertainments of the 1950s over today's mindless noise. It must be seen to be believed. For Turnbull, it's a phone call with a potential partner in which we hear only her side of the conversation, and it encompasses a roller coaster of emotion; hanging on her every peak and valley, we hope she winds up on top.
For Wheeler, it's a breathless and animated series of prophesies, offering another new side to this wonderful character actor who previously disappeared into divergent roles in GableStage's Race and Ruined. And for Servidio, as the libidinous dimwit Spike — so nicknamed because his hair is spiky! — every minute onstage is a showcase of hilarious self-absorption, whether he's errantly jiggling his pecs off to the side of the stage or performing a "reverse striptease" that includes a few priceless buttocks thrusts in Turnbull's nonplussed direction. Hayley Bruce rounds out the impeccable cast as Nina, a star-struck ingénue neighbor who drifts like a fairy into the siblings' house and creates comic tension between Masha and Spike.
I still haven't mentioned the show's voodoo ceremony, its Snow White costume party (another witty collection from costume designer Ellis Tillman), or its play-within-a-play inspired by one of Chekhov's plays-within-plays. After all of this busy content, I'm not sure Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike says anything profound about the human condition, man's place in the universe, time's inexorable march, or even the nature of siblings or the vagaries of love and companionship. But it dances around those concepts, often and deliberately with two left feet and a few calculated tumbles. It's a show primarily about the theater itself, drunk and happy on centuries of stagecraft, a rejuvenating paean to the empty stage and its limitless possibilities.
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