By Bill Hirschman
Christopher Durang initially wrote or altered Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to precisely match the literally inimitable world-class talents of David Hyde Pierce, Sigourney Weaver and Kristine Nielsen. As a result, the 2013 Tony-winning production was hilarious and thought-provoking.
What wasn’t clear was just how difficult it would be for anyone else to do it, although scores of companies have tried. Even GableStage with some of the best artists in the region only fought it to a respectable showing in 2014, rib-ticklingly humorous but not what the Broadway version showed it could be.
So it’s no surprise that the earnest, eager and ambitious Chicken Coop Theatre troupe based at the Levis JCC in Boca Raton and headed by director/producer Alan Nash only succeeds in brief flashes and rarely delivers the script’s potential. It feels more like good amateur theater than the professional level show with Equity actors that it is.
Durang wrote in a Chekhovian vein with wry humor and gentle compassion about three siblings in Pennsylvania (instead of provincial Russia) struggling in late middle age with the realization that they have pursued lives that are empty. It was not meant to be a Chekhov play in modern dress, but a satirical riff on his themes’ similarities with modern-day angst.
Durang long ago proved his talents for off-beat premises, witty dialogue, visual humor and outlandish physical comedy. This production’s strongest moments make the most of the latter, such as a handsome crotch-pumping boy toy vogueing in his underwear, or a Caribbean housekeeper cavorting in the throes of a voodoo ritual. But Durang’s masterful quips, retorts and bandiage fall flat much of the time in part because no one gives the lines the topspin they need.
Further, this production is not suffused with the sad elegiac undertone of these three mourning a past that has slipped away along with their chance to make something of it. The right lines are spoken, but the ambiance is missing. And crucially, the performances deliver zero foreshadowing of the explosion of festering anger and frustration that crests near the finale.
The play opens in a lovely old home in the traditional rural retreat for wealthy Manhattanites in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Siblings Vanya (Jeffrey Bruce) and Sonia (Elli Murray) are staring out at a pond as they have every morning for 30-plus years. They are landed gentry who have done nothing substantial with their lives other than care for their late parents. They are not snobbish one-percenters, just gentle, quirky hermits who have retreated from a real world that they have absolutely no skills to cope with.
They have been warned of imminent disaster by their housekeeper, Cassandra (Rozaly Rodriguez), who, like her Grecian namesake, claims to see the future although no one will believe her as she intones seemingly obscure phrases (“Beware Hootie-Pie!”) as if she was a priestess out of Euripides.
The idyll is disrupted by one of the infrequent visits from sister Masha (Erika Scotti), a freight train heedlessly speeding through crossings whether anyone is stuck on the tracks or not. She’s a cartoonish jet-setting trend-obsessed actress who stars in action films that pay for the upkeep of the house but do nothing to feed her moribund artistic soul.
In reality, the emptiness of Masha’s life is catching up with her, from her five failed marriages to the disintegration of her career. In one of the sublimely silly scenes that this cast nails, Sonia bawls that she has never lived; Masha bawls just as loudly that her life is meaningless.
By the way, the siblings’ names are not accidental; their parents were college professors who pursued their love of classic drama by performing in community theater.
Tagging along is Masha’s newest acquisition, Spike (Brendan Feingold), a 20-something aspiring actor whose major credit is “almost being cast in Entourage 2.” He has a total self-centeredness that seems as unconscious as if it was his birthright – which makes it all the more infuriating and hilarious. Completing the sextet is aspiring actress Nina (of course, Nina, as in The Seagull), a sweet willowy young neighbor in awe of her idol Masha (Jennifer Coe).
The inciting action is that Masha wants to sell the house including the few cherry trees that Sonia terms an orchard. That would essentially kick her siblings into the street. But plot is secondary to these portraits of flawed silly people trying to find or preserve a safe haven in a world that is morphing too fast for them to adapt.
Scotti has the best written role and does a passable job with its energy and she does not shy from Masha’s uninhibited selfish ego. But Weaver instilled Masha with a monster sacre personality of someone who has had everything she wants, but who cannot hide from the audience that she is terrified that she is on the cusp of losing it. That’s not here.
Murray has the toughest challenge. It just isn’t fair, but darn near no one can play that slightly batty passive-aggressive persona like Nielsen. Murray, who starred in Driving Miss Daisy last season, never comes across as comfortable in the role. She has one shining moment in the solo scene in which the Sonia tentatively makes a connection on the phone with a possible suitor – something Sonia never thought she’d experience.
The key piece of the play is Vanya’s late second act meltdown as he rants for several minutes in lament for the lost common cultural touchstones of the 1940s and 1950s which used to bond society together – from licking stamps to Ozzie & Harriet. Bruce works very hard to master this very long aria, methodically ticking off each casualty on the list so that the audience will murmur appreciation recognizing each disappeared facet. But that’s not the point of the speech as Hyde Pierce and director Nicholas Martin knew. It’s supposed to be a volcanic vomiting of anger built up over decades in a raging torrent of verbiage. Not only is it not essential for every individual item to land, the specific items aren’t important – it’s Vanya venting the overall emotional angst on behalf of the audience. So the item by item listing seems endless.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through Jan. 14 from Chicken Coop Theatre performing at Levis JCC Sandler Center, 21050 95th Avenue South, Boca Raton. 7:30 p.m. Thursday & Saturday; and 2 p.m. Thursday & Sunday. Tickets $25-$40. Running time, 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission. (561) 558-2512, www.levisjcc.org/theater.