Chekhov Revised: Three Sisters-and-Brother

THEATER REVIEW: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Huntington Theater, Boston, January 9, 2015

Two weeks ago, I attended the Huntington’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, waiting to see what New York raved about. Turns out Christopher Durang’s show is seriously funny and, funny enough, kind of serious. A playwright known for the absurd, Durang has contained himself within a realistic setting: a generations-old Bucks County, Pennsylvania home by the lake, where Vanya and his sister Sonia stare out the window and regret their squandered existence.

Vanya_and_Sonia10_print_r620x349Within a few minutes, Vanya and Sonia liken themselves to Chekhovian characters—which we were primed for. Durang’s play isn’t a straight parody of The Cherry Orchard or Three Sisters, though it’s chock-full of easy-to-spot winks. At a particularly depressed moment, Sonia laments, with the saddest replacement for a seagull, “I am a wild turkey!”

As the title suggests, Durang uproots the introspective, old-world Vanya and Sonia when their glamorous movie-star sister Masha and her young boytoy Spike come to stay. Spike’s proudest achievement is being almost cast in Entourage 2. And with them comes an imbalance that Durang spends the night resolving. Masha re-opens old wounds with her sister Sonia, while Vanya tries to play peacemaker between them. At the play’s climax, Vanya explodes when Spike texts during his play reading, in a harangue about licking postage stamps and other long-lost hallmarks of the simpler life he misses.

It’s clear where Durang’s allegiance lies. For one, this monologue feels more of a writer’s proclamation than completely in character. And compared to the hilariously weary old-timers, Spike doesn’t warrant much sympathy. He’s deliberately two-dimensional. Maybe he has an Electra complex for Masha, or maybe he just wants to make it big. Spike is the empty threat of the Younger Generation.

The three siblings are well cast at the Huntington. Marcia DeBonis excels as ugly duckling Sonia, using a shrill, nagging voice that blossoms over the evening. DeBonis’s highlight is her Eliza Doolittle-style transformation for a costume party into a confident woman emulating a plummy Maggie Smith accent. Candy Buckley is a sweet-and-sour Masha. Every punchline comes with a growl or grimace. Buckley mines a lot of humor from Masha realizing she’s not so young anymore. And Martin Moran finds an unapologetic warmth in Vanya; he’s the cornerstone of the family, doing his best (until his frenzied rant) to keep everything in place.

After seeing Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance in New York, my mind wanders back to Vanya. The WASP family in their own serene world, struggling to maintain what they have, waiting for their bubble to burst. Durang is more frivolous, but has more fun with his misfits. They are even more misplaced than Albee’s, out of place, out of time. But when their balance is shaken, Durang’s family learns how to laugh at their own folly. Farewell, Spike. Farewell, Chekhov.

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