Tuesday, July 07, 2015

'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' Doesn't Equal the Sum of Its Parts -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
a recent play by Christopher Durang
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 26

One of the biggest holes in my rather vast theatergoing database is that I've never seen--nor read--any of the four masterpieces by Anton Chekhov.

Although The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are all titles I've often heard, they aren't plays I've knowingly had (and/or took advantage of) opportunity to "Chekhov" my list.

Until Sunday night at the Goodman Theatre, I also had never seen anything written by Christopher Durang, one of the more prolific and noted contemporary playwrights. As with Chekhov, this has never been a matter of abject avoidance, rather just mere lack of acute occasion.

It's certainly possible that were I more familiar with Chekhov and Durang, I may have better appreciated the latter's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, whose first three titular characters are adult siblings named after characters in Chekhov plays by their professor parents.

Throughout the 2012 play--winner of the Best Play Tony Award in 2013 for merits I failed to appreciate on this initial viewing--numerous references are made to the Russian writer's works, including some I probably missed if the titles weren't involved.

Being unfamiliar with Chekhov, it's also quite plausible that I failed to appreciate any thematic/stylistic similarities or narrative allusions that Durang may have been making.

But at face value, I found Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to be decent, but not particularly compelling or special, with only late second act proceedings--of a nearly 2 hour and 45 minute play--raising my rating to @@@1/2.

Which isn't to say it isn't any good, as the somewhat absurdist--though not nearly as much so as Beckett and Albee--play has a number of good parts, including not just four but six well-crafted characters.

And the acting in the Goodman production, directed by Steve Scott, is universally strong, with Ross Lehman excellent as Vanya, a single gay man in his late 50s living with his 52-year-old sister, Sonia (played with nice nuance by Janet Ulrich Brooks) in their late parents' home in Bucks County, PA.

Though she doesn't get to use her great singing voice here, E. Faye Butler steals every scene she's in as Cassandra, a Greek mythology monikered cleaning lady-cum-psychic.

And in her second straight show at Goodman following The Little Foxes, Mary Beth Fisher makes for a convincing slowly-fading movie star in Masha, who is supporting her brother and sister in their fringes-of-society existence after years of caring for their folks.

After an initial dialogue between Vanya and Sonia, primarily about morning coffee, the play unfolds as Masha returns to the homestead with her boy-toy, Spike, who spends much of his stage time showcasing his sculpted physique. Incidentally, Jordan Brown, who imbues the non-Chekhovian-named Spike with deeply-ingrained shallowness, played something of a surrogate son to Fisher's character in White Guy on the Bus at Northlight Theatre earlier this year.

The final character is a pretty young neighbor girl, Nina (attractively embodied by Rebecca Buller), who serves mainly to exacerbate Masha's insecurities when it comes to Spike.

There is plenty of humor, including some laugh out loud lines (and I rarely LOL), one of the best static sets I've ever seen--by Scenic Designer Charlie Corcoran--and narrative explorations I could relate to involving unattached and unemployed but quite intelligent people of a certain age pondering their sense of place and purpose while seeking refuge among family.

And for those of us who often rue the erosion of shared experiences and memories in the ever-fragmented and increasingly superfluous digital age, Lehman as Vanya terrifically delivers a raging--if a tad overlong--rallying cry to the twentysomething Spike, whose crime of texting during a performance was actually echoed by the woman sitting in front of me. (See part of Lehman's monologue here if you wish.)

Then there's the rather preposterous--and oft used in promotional materials--stage imagery that has the cast frocked for awhile as characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Throw in some rather touching and poignant moments near the end, plus a bit of voodoo, and it would seem that Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has quite a good bit going for it.

Certainly the Tony voters thought so.

But by intermission, my mom and I, as well as a pair of Sunday night subscriber friends we bumped into, were congruently scratching out heads about the merits and meaning of what we had witnessed.

And while the second act took things up a bit, all told it was a rather middling conclusion to a somewhat "ehhh" season at the Goodman, rather than the recent Tony-winning highlight we hoped it would be.

Throw in a theater balcony that was absurdly arctic throughout Act I and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike ended up being satisfying in part--and name--only.

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