By Christopher Durang
At the Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Offbeat sitcom-styled comedy long on Chekhovian parody yet short on witty humor
I must confess that I’m not a strong fan of Christopher Durang’s irreverent humor. And, let me add, that I’m tired of Chekhov parodies. Despite a terrific cast, Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike is short on laughs and long on sophomoric, cliche-ridden situations. Add an uneven production that drags in parts and we have a two hour and thirty minute absurdist, surreal contemporary comedy.
This show is Durang’s parody of Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull set in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania in 2015. We meet Vanya (Ross Lehman) and his sister Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), two 50something singles as the have their morning coffee and gripe about their boredom as they realize that their lives may be over since they have spent the last 15 years caring for their ailing parents. How Chekhovian! This early scene meanders a tad too long (as many of Durang’s bits do.)
The morning gets wild upon the entrance of the Haitian cleaning lady, Cassandra (the energetic force of nature E. Fays Butler), as she spreads her voodoo inspired incantations. Her omens often come true as she has new predictions as the other daughter, Masha (Mary Beth Fisher) and her boy-toy Spike (Jordan Brown) arrive for a rare visit. Masha is a self-adsorbed aging film and theatre star who owns the house that Vanya and Sonia are living in. Cassandra predicts that Masha plans to sell the house.
This theatre referenced comedy contains many running gags and situations, as well as sexy references, especially with Spike flaunting his body while hanging out in his briefs. When Masha is invited to a costume party, she wants to go as Snow White, with Vanya and Sonia going as dwarfs and Spike as Prince Charming. Sonia, however, decides to go as the wicked witch as played by Maggie Smith. Add the young female neighbor, Nina (Rebecca Buller), an aspiring actress and avid fan of Masha, and we have a challenge to Masha’s courtship with Spike. Mayhem ensues.
So this comedy is a mash-up of contrived events and over-indulgent character stereotypes set into wacky situations. While there are some funny bits, overall this show is a bit repetitive, with some situations taking too long to deliver with crude humor. The show needs some judicious cuts as it overstays its welcome. In act two, it loses its way only to be saved by Vanya’s diatribe about live in the 1950’s when we actually wrote letters and we licked stamps! Ross Lehman was terrific in that moving monologue. Mary Beth Fisher was a hoot as the neuritic film star, and Jordan Brown was hilarious as the boy bimbo. But Janet Ulrich Brooks steals this show with her so-Chekhovian and so-funny performance as the lonely, spinster who finally realizes that she can have a life and possibly some love.
Taken as a whole, Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike isn’t my brand of humor, and the usual over laughing opening night audience was amazingly muted. Few belly laughs were heard and the usual standing ovation at the end was less than normal. I think Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike is either a “love it” or “hate it” show. My problem with it lies in Durang’s writing, not the fine direction by Steve Scott or the fine comic work from the “A” list Equity cast. Too many silly bits and over exaggerated situations fueled the comic overload. Still, avid parody lovers, especially those familiar with Chekhov, may enjoy this show.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: June 29, 2015
For more info checkout the Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3825, www.goodmantheatre.org, tickets $27 – $79, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission,through July 26, 2015