Bucks County Playhouse is doing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” just the way it should be done: as a whole-hearted goof. The play by Christopher Durang, a Bucks County resident, is both an homage to and spoof of the great 19th-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, replete with the master’s brooding and regretful characters, but also with Snow White plus dwarfs, a boy-toy who persists in throwing off his clothes, and a housekeeper consumed by incantations and voodoo.
You needn’t know much at all about Chekhov to enjoy the production, but if you’re even a little versed in his works (“Uncle Vanya,” for example, or “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Three Sisters”) you’ll have more fun. Durang’s dialogue is highly Chekhovian in its feel for general despair – filled with musings on regret, happiness and circumstance – and could be a modern-day version of Chekhov that happens to be a romp. Sheryl Kaller’s production at Bucks County reverses that focus, making it a romp composed of Chekhovian elements.
That’s more the way “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” played on Broadway, where it won the best-play Tony Award last year; last season at the Philadelphia Theatre Company production, it was more intenserly interpreted. At the Playhouse, on Lauren Helpern’s striking, airy Bucks County house in the woods, the more despairing these characters get, the funnier they are. The production also has a special aspect – Durang himself takes the role of Vanya, and more on that later.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (for reasons that appear to be related to graphic design, the Playhouse has altered the title by replacing the “ands” with ampersands) is about two couch potatoes, Vanya and Sonia, getting old fast in their isolated Bucks County routine and their sister, Masha. She’s a grade-B movie star who pays them a visit with her new boyfriend, Spike, a talentless hunk many years her junior. Masha owns the house their parents left, and pays for its upkeep, and she’s not about to do so forever.
It’s added fun to see the play in Bucks County, with its references to Upper Black Eddy and Wawa (special crowd-pleasers here). It’s more fun to see it done to maximize the laughter, with delivery and timing that turns all the angst into classy chuckles. Sonia, the sister who’s particularly regretful about her life, is given an elegantly nuanced performance by Deirdre Madigan who, in the same role, also gave the shining performance of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production. (Madigan is even better here, with more rope to comically climb.)
Marilu Henner paints the movie-star Masha in colorful streaks: one is for glamour (the lanky, curvy Henner is arresting in black pants that appear to be part of her natural skin) and another is for style, and others represent vulnerability, airs and even honesty. Jimmy Mason is a perfectly clueless Spike, with a build for the role. Two other actors – Mahira Kakkar as the clairvoyant housekeeper and Clea Alsip as a young woman next door who gets caught up in the craziness – are so adept at their secondary roles, they become major players whenever they’re onstage.
Which leaves us with Durang, the portrayer of the more care-free and somewhat befuddled Vanya, and the reason I suspect the production will draw a number of ticket-buyers. His work, which might be termed comically iconoclastic, includes “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “Beyond Therapy” and the juicy “Miss Witherspoon,” and Durang is also no stranger to acting.
But being the playwright does not give him a pass as an actor in his own work. When I saw the production Friday night, Durang had a halting, unsure delivery — at first I thought it was either a brilliant stroke for a character who’s a misfit even in an entire family of them. But when he called for a line early on, I began to wonder just how well-planned the stumbling might be.
By intermission, I remained mystified. On the one hand, Durang’s delivery was getting laughs, partly because it seemed out of balance and partly because the cast was responding as if the character always speaks that way. On the other hand, Durang seemed not on intimate terms with the very words he’s written. Writing something is, of course, very different from performing it — especially in an ensemble work guided by a director’s interpretive vision. But here was Durang, performing it in any case.
And it would have been more than passable until later in the second half, when Durang gives the character an explosive rant that goes on for possibly 10 minutes and is a defining moment – the unprepossessing Vanya, catapulting out of his mold. It’s a funny, loopy monologue about the old days, about the way we defined a national culture that was never inclusive but appeared to be a part of the American psyche. It includes verbal images of Ed Sullivan and Ozzie and Harriet, of licking postage stamps and changing typewriter ribbons. On Broadway in the person of David Hyde Pierce, it was a stunning tour-de-force.
At Bucks County Playhouse on Friday night, it was no tour-de-force, and stunning for the wrong reasons. Through it all, Durang called for lines three times. Momentum was absent. The development of Vanya’s argument was broken. Only the occasional laughs remained.
More happily, the less stand-out parts of Durang’s play had moved along with a vibrance that made me appreciate the playwright Durang – and Chekhov – in a special way.
_“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through August 10 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S Main St, New Hope. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.