I had the opportunity to see Christopher Durang’s Tony-award winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike on Broadway last spring. As can happen with shows that have been running a long time (the show had been open for seven months), by the time I saw it the production had lost both its freshness and its honesty; like a clock that’s been too-tightly wound, the performance felt hyper-amped and overplayed, the laugh lines too-anticipated, the characterizations too caricatured. A stranger two seats over turned to me at intermission and asked, “Is this good? Is it funny? I’m not sure I can tell.” I confess I felt the same way; the play seemed funny and witty and clever, but the production was so overcooked that it had devolved into signalling and signposting all the moments of humor (and of course the audience, having paid over $100 a ticket to be humored, dutifully laughed in all the right places).
So I have been anticipating City Theatre’s production of this play with much curiosity. My suspicion (and hope) was that a fresher production with a less celebrity-status ensemble of actors might be able to bring a sincerity and vulnerability to the play that would better serve not only the comedy but also the existential melancholy that grounds the play. I was right. I cannot say with confidence that City Theatre’s version of the play is better than the New York one (I do not doubt that early in its run that production deserved all the accolades it received), but I can say that it is a far more gratifying, honest, and genuinely funny production than the one I saw.
Vanya…, as its title, much of its early expository dialogue, and its many self-conscious intertextual references make clear, updates and gently satirizes the work of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. It’s a play about midlife crises, about looking back at lives well-lived and not-so-well-lived. Vanya and his adopted sister Sonya live in the family home in Bucks County, PA, supported by their narcissistic film-star sister Masha. Like Chekhovian characters, Vanya and Sonya are unemployed and under-occupied, spending their ambitionless days squabbling over coffee and complaining about the emptiness of their lives. Vanya is secretly working on a modern version of Constantin’s “failed” experimental play from Chekhov’s The Seagull; Sonya is a depressive who battles resentment for having sacrificed her best years to the care of her adoptive parents. The conflict of the play is set in motion when Masha arrives for the weekend with her boy-toy Spike in tow. She’s come to attend a neighborhood celebrity costume party, and also to arrange for the sale of the family home, which she owns. As in Chekhov’s plays, plot and action here are subordinate to the investigation of character; Durang paints a perceptive, if at times overdrawn, portrait of the anxieties, neuroses, and irritations that beset the modern middle-aged soul.
Under Tracy Brigden’s deft direction the ensemble shines. Harry Bouvy brings a nice combination of bafflement and resignation to the role of Vanya; he’s believable as the beleaguered brother who has repressed both desire and ambition in his quest to avoid conflict, and his nostalgic rant bemoaning the loss of licked stamps, letters, and Ozzie and Harriet is hilarious because deeply grounded in the character’s fogey-ish lostness in the modern world. Sheila McKenna plays the self-deprecating Sonya with enough self-aware irony to allow us to be genuinely moved by the open vulnerability she experiences when she gets a phone call from a gentleman asking her out on a date. Helena Ruoti is terrific as the egocentric Masha, a difficult role because the dialogue requires the actress to tell her feelings as she shows them. Ruoti handles these moments well, showing us the narcissist’s talent for having her emotional cake and eating it too. Karl Glusman is convincing as Spike, the young budding actor in love with himself (and his beautiful body) who has not yet developed an adult’s understanding of civil and social boundaries. His is a role that could too easily slip into broad cartoon, but Glusman holds back and makes sure we see a real person behind the playwright’s satire of Millenial self-absorption. As the prophesying housekeeper Cassandra, Amirah Vann is absolutely wonderful, and Hayley Nielsen is sweet and straightforward as the young aspiring actress Nina.
The design of this production also deserves special mention: Susan Tsu’s costume design is spectacular, allowing us to see the “Chekhov” in the everyday dress of Vanya, Sonya, and Nina, the “Hollywood” in Masha and Spike, and traces of the “ancient Greek” in Cassandra. She brings wit and originality to her rendering of Snow White and her dwarves, and utterly transforms Sonya for the costume party. Tony Ferrieri’s set is lovely, evoking both the provinciality and the privilege of the family “estate.” The sound design by Joe Pino provides for lively transitions between the acts and, together with Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, sets the mood, atmosphere, and tone of the play in unexpected but pitch-perfect ways.