Friday, December 13, 2013

Chekhov, spiked

Phyllis Kay trades tragedy for Mark Larson's abs.

It's great to see Trinity Rep firing on all cylinders again with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang's latest hi-lo cultural pastiche (and his second from Russian sources - years ago he and Yale buddy Albert Innaurato concocted The Idiots Karamazov). Indeed, director Curt Columbus's production is so strong that you almost forgive this playwright his usual failings - his featherweight plotting in particular.  But alas, the script is also just strong enough (at least during its first half) that you leave frustrated with this perennial under-achiever, whose tone has been highly influential but who hasn't carpentered a substantial dramatic structure since - what, maybe the late 80's?

Sigh. Of course when you can win a Best New Play Tony for work like this, why change, I suppose; indeed, it's hard to ask anyone to set their sights higher than New York's (so it's too bad those sights are so abysmally low).  At any rate, for a while Vanya, et al., does suggest that Durang has found the discipline to pull together something along the lines of Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius . . ., or even Marriage of Bette and Boo. He certainly has a resonant theme - i.e., that middle-aged American life would be Chekhovian in its comic poignance, if only we gave up on our vulgar addiction to sex and cheap thrills.  And his knowledge of Chekhov's "Big Four" (and the resonances between them) allows him to layer leaves from the different works into a pleasingly thick, self-conscious slice of bemused reference. Even his famous meta-awareness - the whole I-am-a-character-in-a-play-based-on-a-character-much-like-me - kind of works as a mode of naturalism this time around.

What's more, his set-up has obvious dramatic possibilities. The curtain rises on Vanya and Sonia (Brian McEleny and Janice Duclos), poor country cousins living on a faded estate (too brightly imagined, perhaps, by designer Michael McGarty) and off the financial largesse of their movie-star sister, Masha (who unlike her namesake actually fled all this ennui for the bright lights of something like Moscow). We get a full load of their puttering sense of futility before Masha herself (Phyllis Kay) enters suddenly, with boy toy "Spike" (Mark Larson) in tow - basically to swan around at a swank costume party, with her bitter siblings playing the Seven Dwarves to her own Snow White. The faintly surreal cartoonishness of that gambit is familiar from other Durang efforts, as are the relentless quotes from all sorts of cultural artifacts, high and low - but everything moves along smoothly on currents of bitchily erudite wit.

And slowly the Chekhov parallels begin to achieve a light resonance, believe it or not - particularly when Nina flutters in from The Seagull - and we begin to sense a funny tension evolving between the self-image of the suffering Vanya and Sonia and the lurid attractions of Spike, who simultaneously reads as both a knock-off of Yelena from Uncle Vanya and the embodiment of the instant gratifications that have basically destroyed gentility forever. And as Spike seems to be playing Masha against her own brother (who's gay), we begin to half-expect a nicely simmering second act, flecked with even deeper, funnier riffs on the Russian master's melodramatic edge.

Janice Duclos holds court as Maggie Smith.  Photos: Mark Turek.

But no dice. Durang abandons his own premise in intellectual terms, and all but drops his satiric scalpel as well - perhaps because somewhere he knows that if we gave up "Spike," we'd probably have to give up Christopher Durang, too. Instead he delivers a long, long rant about the lost innocence of early-boomer pop (you know, when opera singers showed up on Ed Sullivan) that plays to the blue-hairs but goes absolutely nowhere new, and then wraps with a feel-good coda, in which the three siblings (sans Spike) unite in forgiveness and understanding, along with the casts of The Cosby Show and Saved by the Bell.

Ok, I made up that last part - and I suppose half a play is better than none; certainly the Trinity cast sells the hell out of this one. My only real quibble was with newcomer Mark Larson's Spike; he's certainly rockin' the bod for the part (above), but I felt he wasn't rocking the blankly perverse dimension I think the role requires. But Phyllis Kay made close to an ideal Masha - sweetly blinkered and manipulatively vain in equal measure (perhaps the text could allow a slightly deeper autumnal shiver at her big change of heart, though). And elsewhere the acting news was also good: a persnickety Brian McEleny almost put over Vanya's rant, the luminous Sylvia Kates charmed as Nina, and another fresh face, Tangela Large, put a hilarious spin on Cassandra, the housemaid who swings at will from prophecy to air-quoted sitcom sass. I was actually most tickled, however, by veteran Janice Duclos, whose Sonia was a near-perfect mix of natural wit and unhappy self-sabotage; indeed, her unexpected triumph as Dame Maggie Smith at that benighted costume party (above) was one of the funniest things I've seen this year. And her resulting shot at real romance proved truly poignant; for a moment, it was as if the axe had been unexpectedly stilled in the cherry orchard.

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