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Center Stage makes most of Durang's Chekhov-obssesed play

Geoffrey Himes

April 30, 2014

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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by Christopher Durang

Directed by Eric Rosen

Through May 25 At Center Stage

Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, while Konstantin Stanislavsky, his director at the Moscow Art Theatre, thought of them as tragedies. That they could each make a plausible case for one side of the question is a testament to the timeless power of Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Three Sisters.

Although three Chekhov characters are referenced in the title of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, no one would mistake Christopher Durang's 2012 play as timeless or as anything but a comedy. In its new production at Center Stage, though, the show proves a quite the laughfest, thanks to some witty jokes and an inspired cast led by two Baltimore actors among the three leads.

There is a cherry orchard behind a house threatened by an impending sale, and siblings Vanya and Masha and their adopted sister, Sonia, were so named by their Chekhov-loving professor parents. But this is neither a modern adaptation nor a parody of the Russian playwright; it's a 21st-century farce populated with a lying boy-toy, a lying movie celebrity, a voodoo-spouting West Indian housecleaner, and an involuntarily abstinent gay man.

As the play begins, the 52-year-old Sonia (Barbara Walsh) and the 57-year-old Vanya (Baltimore's Bruce Randolph Nelson) are sitting in white wicker furniture on the back porch of their handsome suburban home in Bucks County, Pa., bickering amicably, as they have for years. Their comfortable routine is upended when their movie-star sister, Masha (Baltimore's Susan Rome), flounces into the family manse in white heels, a white pantsuit, and a flowing white jacket. Trailing behind her is her latest boyfriend, a 29-year-old blond male bimbo named Spike (Zachary Andrews).

Masha has come back from Hollywood to attend a high-society costume party, and her whole family is invited-provided they agree to wear dwarf costumes and trail behind her when she's dressed as Snow White. Oh, and by the way, she's tired of paying for the mortgage and maintenance and wants to sell the house.

There's nothing subtle about Durang's depiction of Masha as a pretty actress with a Godzilla ego. As written, Rome makes no effort to camouflage her character's attempts to manipulate and humiliate everyone around her. Rather than subvert the script by adding realism to this cartoon villainess, Rome has chosen to throw all her energy and skill into Durang's hilarious hyperbole. Once you can suspend your disbelief that anyone could be so blatantly obnoxious, you can't help but laugh at nearly everything she says.

Cassandra (Kerry Warren), who takes her name from Aeschylus rather than Chekhov, isn't any more realistic. Like her namesake, this cleaning woman often goes into a trance where she can see glimpses of the future, announcing her prophecies in wide-eyed, chest-resounding declarations. Then she sweeps up the broken coffee cups and makes a new pot. Like Rome, Warren doesn't bother with realism but invests in comic exaggeration with great dividends for the audience.

The already-high-strung Masha shifts to an even higher gear of panic each time her superiority is challenged: When Spike starts flirting with the neighboring 20-something Nina (Emily Peterson), when Sonia upstages Masha at the party by dressing as an especially dazzling wicked witch, when Sonia and Vanya rebel against her plan to sell the house. The more hysterical Masha gets, the more nervous and secretive everyone around her becomes, and the more convulsed with laughter we in the audience are.

As the balding, bearded, pot-bellied Vanya who wears pajamas most of the day, Nelson doesn't have much to do but represent a calm, forbearing alternative to his two sisters. In the second act, however, he reluctantly agrees to share his long-hidden play with the others. And when, during the reading, Spike starts texting on his cellphone, Vanya finally cracks, exploding into a harangue about everything he dislikes about the modern world, from multitasking to niche audiences.

The long monologue isn't especially well-written, but Nelson stuffs it full of every resentment and disappointment a 50-something man without a career or partner might harbor. The note of anguish in the actor's voice is so eloquent that it doesn't really matter what he says. As Sonia, Walsh has a similarly effective monologue when she answers the phone to find herself asked out on a date for the first time in decades. We only hear her half the conversation, of course, but we can see her change her mind, change it again, and then change it a third time.

During the opening scene of their bickering, Vanya tells Sonia, "I hope you're not going to make Chekhov references all day." His hope is in vain, for the play is full of. such references. But, for the most part, the allusions are there as jokes, not as an effort to match the Russian's bittersweet ambiguity. And they're good jokes.