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By Bill Hirschman
“What fools these mortals be.”
–Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Let’s go to Moscow.”
–Chekhov’s Three Sisters
The Bard meant Puck’s derisive line with bemused affection. Chekhov mocked Irina’s perpetual inaction with compassion for human frailty. And to some degree, that’s what underlies Christopher Durang’s droll satire Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at GableStage.
This may seem be a highbrow observation for a play notable for a buff but dim-witted actor wannabe doing a reverse strip tease. But it is, indeed, germane.
Under the vanities and inanities, the witty literary allusions and the silly sight gags, Durang gently pokes fun at people who have wasted their lives because they fear change, challenges or just life itself. But don’t fret, mostly director Joseph Adler and his cast deliver a good old-fashioned, absurdist character comedy.
A trio of privileged fifty-something siblings squabble as their lives are upended, only to discover a kind of peace at the curtain by ultimately taking baby steps that almost constitute doing nothing. Very Chekhovian.
But Vanya et.al. also depicts a B-movie diva dressing up like Walt Disney’s Snow White, her sister finding potential romance by pretending to talk like Maggie Smith, and their brother drafting a post-apocalyptic play in which the characters are talking molecules. Very Durangian.
Along for the ride are the movie star’s risibly self-absorbed boy toy, a voodoo-practicing housekeeper who reveals visions of the future with the portentous verbiage of a Greek oracle, and a dewy young neighbor who wants to be a serious actress.
Durang stirs together these six characters in search of the meaning of life in last year’s Tony-winning best play. Durang’s off-beat sensibility is not to everyone’s taste and the play does run on a bit long, but for those in tune with his vision, Vanya and Co. is quite entertaining.
Adler, who is better known for his dramas than his comedy, lets loose with a far more rollicking and kinetic staging than his regular patrons will expect. The Broadway version with its dream cast including David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver was a bit more poignant (although equally hilarious) and the humor a few millimeters less broad. But Adler’s version is satisfying with his cast of clowns including Avi Hoffman, Laura Turnbull, Margarita Coego, Jade Wheeler, Domenic Servidio and Hayley Bruce.
The play opens in the morning room of a lovely old home in the traditional rural retreat for wealthy Manhattanites in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Siblings Vanya (Hoffman) and Sonia (Turnbull) are sipping coffee, sparring verbally and staring out at a pond as they have every morning for 30-plus years. Like many of Chekhov’s characters, they are landed gentry who have done nothing substantial with their lives other than care for their late parents. But 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. Vanya is gay although he likely has never had sex and Sonia is a spinster with an off-kilter demeanor. Both share a quick intelligence, dry wit and unspoken loneliness.
They have been warned of imminent disaster by their housekeeper, Cassandra (Wheeler), 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 (Coego), 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 a sublimely silly scene, 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 (Servido), a 20-something aspiring actor whose major credit is “almost being cast in Entourage 2.” He is incredibly good looking with a body that doesn’t quit, a mind that quit long ago and a total self-centeredness that is 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. Nina (Hayley Bruce) agrees to perform for the group “Uncle” Vanya’s long-gestating but, naturally, unfinished script for an avant-garde play. She prances around as a molecule while Cassandra gamely reads the part of a newscaster describing the end of the world.
The tone and the ensuing plot echoes, honors and lampoons Chekhov and his classic characters. 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.
Much praise will deservedly be paid to a scene when Vanya, furious at Spike’s texting during the reading of his play, erupts into a volcanic rant. He rails against the shallowness and the disconnected nature of modern society compared to the flawed but cohesive world that the siblings grew up in. Durang has written a hilarious, slightly too long yet brilliant vent that starts off attacking Spike because he doesn’t realize that a world once existed before him, when people used to lick stamps. Vanya carries on how there were no adventures in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but everyone watched it together. He says, “It was a stupid show, but it was calming. You didn’t feel like it was stirring people up and creating serial killers.”
Hoffman knows a good thing when he gets it and he makes the absolute most of this opportunity to meld his well-honed comic chops and his dramatic skills into an inseparable whole. For most of the play, Hoffman has been using his decades of experience to time line deliveries and indulge in comical facial expressions. But his outpouring of anger and resentment in the rant has an authenticity that speaks the angst of for nearly anyone over 60. The only asterisk is that in the Broadway production, this explosion obviously had been brewing the entire play, especially after the arrival of Masha and Spike. But here it comes out of nowhere because Vanya has not been annoyed with Spike, just lusting after him.
Coego creates a Masha who doesn’t just suck the air out of every room she enters, she invokes divine right to appropriate the spotlight, the sunlight, and any furniture not nailed down. Yet Coego hints that the fame, the money, the consort, none of it is enough to fill the hole in Masha’s being. Coego creates a hilarious monster of self-centeredness. The sole drawback is that where Sigourney Weaver had a deep, faux honey and varied voice, Coego uses a single high whiny pitch that really wears at you after about a half-hour.
Turnbull has the toughest assignment as the frumpy Sonia, absent of any self-esteem and driven to outbursts of despair. Durang wrote the role to fit the idiosyncratic and inimitable talents of his friend Kristen Nielsen who brought a delightful and endearing daffiness to the role, especially when Sonia is astonished by a telephone call from an actual suitor. While this role is the least showy, Turnbull employs deft timing and innate likeability to get the audiences rooting for her as Sonia begins to show some buds if not actual blossoms.
Wheeler is unrecognizable from the sharp civil lawyer she portrayed in Race and the vulnerable victim of civil war in Ruined, both at GableStage. Her eyes blaze and her body contorts in hysterical permutations as she is clutched by her premonitions, and she is just as funny in pitying her employers who don’t take her seriously. She could easily be convicted of first-degree scene stealing.
Another one likely to be indicted for theatrical larceny is Servido, a junior at New World with a resume of musical theater roles. Do not let the well-chiseled body distract you, if you can, from the masterful comedy performance this guy is giving as the completely clueless preening airhead. It takes a lot of skill to play this dumb. He creates someone self-centered in such a thoughtless way that it’s almost worse than cruelty.
Bruce, a recent New World grad, is delightful as the tall, willowy ingénue, throwing herself wholeheartedly in Vanya’s play and into life in general.
Adler often stages dramas with a minimum of physical action that might draw attention to his work; he often gets intensely effective performances from two people just sitting on a bench. But here he refreshingly uses every inch of his broad stage and his actors for the most part cavort like marionettes cut loose and trying to find their legs: Wheeler’s wild contortions as she puts a hex on a voodoo doll of Masha, Nina’s Martha Graham-like choreography to accompany her reading of Vanya’s script, Spike’s posturing while recreating an overblown audition piece, and Hoffman tearing across the stage during his rant.
Lyle Baskin’s set is a superb evocation of a comfortable two-story hermitage occupied by unassuming people of means – flagstone and clapboard walls, comfortable wicker furniture, wood timbers in the ceiling. While most of the floor plan very closely mirrors David Korins’ design in New York, it is a dead perfect environment expertly executed with props by Beth Fath and lighting by Steve Welsh. Ellis Tillman’s costumes mirror the characters’ personalities, especially the outfits for Spike.
Perhaps it’s a bit cruel to giggle at these people in late middle age trapped in lives that seem to be irising down. But with Durang, rarely has rue and despair been so funny.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through June 15 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, inside the Biltmore Hotel. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Sunday. Runs 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets $40 – $55. For tickets and more information, call 305-445-1119 or visit GableStage.org