Thursday, January 29, 2015

Durang and Disney and Chekhov at the Huntington

The cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photos: Jim Cox

Playwright Christopher Durang has protested that he didn't intend to write a commercial vehicle when he penned Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (at the Huntington through this weekend), but the cash registers have been ringing for him anyhow, now that the script has nabbed the Tony for best play, and productions have spread across the country. And it's easy to see why the show is popular, particularly in its polished production at the Huntington. Vanya and Sonia, etc. is highly crafted (if not at all structured), tags just about every accepted liberal totem there is, and best of all, delivers a steady stream of knowing bemusement - and even the occasional belly laugh.  The icing on the cake is that it's sprinkled with nods to works of art that only college graduates know about - so not only are its jokes often in-jokes, but it's also easy to pretend Durang's pastiche is somehow in the same league as its references.  Which isn't at all the case - although to be fair, the play does seem to be getting at something in its first act, even if that impression fades over the course of its second; you do leave Vanya and Sonia with a genial grin - just not much more.

Of course for many that's enough. By the time the curtain falls, I think most audiences members will have realized that Vanya and Sonia, like its title, is more a string of funny bits than an integrated statement.  But who cares, really?  Certainly not the critics (who have all loved it).  And maybe not even me; for at this point perhaps Christopher Durang has earned his payday. He has never actually penned a deeply imagined, fully crafted play, not in the classic sense; but his tone of self-conscious comic horror has been widely influential; in fact maybe half of television comedy is indebted to it (indeed, he might be the most imitated playwright alive). And after the misfire of the bravely pointed Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, I can't really blame him for playing things safe this time around.

So just in case you haven't heard, Vanya and Sonia is a kind of mash-up of the comedies of Anton Chekhov, leavened with a saccharine shot of (yes) Walt Disney. Durang's conceit is that his central trio of middle-aged siblings were all named after Chekhov characters by their literary parents, and so, perhaps inevitably, are now wasting away on the family estate in Connecticut. Oh, except for Masha - who actually escaped to Moscow, in a way, by becoming a successful movie actress. She has since supported  Vanya and Sonia for years; but now that their parents are gone, and her asking price has begun to drop, Masha has decided to sell the estate out from under her sibs. Which she announces even as she is dressing them up to play the Seven Dwarves to her Snow White at a costume party (at top).

Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike.
That's basically the whole plot. Of course that's "basically" all there is to The Cherry Orchard, too; but where Chekhov spins a web of subtle insights around the denizens of his drama, Durang mostly just spins references as one-liners.  He does borrow a few larger tropes from Uncle Anton (a big house party forms the crux of the second act, for instance) - but he also deviates from his template in one key respect: the wild inflation of The Cherry Orchard's Yasha into the eponymous Spike (the scrumptious Tyler Lansing Weaks, at left), a boy toy who's always stripping down for our delectation, and who is clearly only keeping Masha as his sugar mama until he gets his big break.

If Durang has anything to say, it's something to do with Spike, and the way the childishly polymorphous American pleasure principle that he represents (basically sex mixed with Disney) contradicts the Chekhovian pathos the people he seduces are hoping to conjure in their lives. But Durang somehow can't quite bring this conflict into deep dramatic focus. He does give Vanya a funny tirade over how pop culture used to be civilized - and even courted high-cult in its way. Which is true enough - and a nice rhetorical gesture (even if it amounts to little more than nostalgia).  But it ain't real drama.

Oh, well! I myself had a certain weakness for Mr. Weaks, and like Vanya forgot these quibbles whenever he came bounding onstage in a speedo. He proves a witty comedian, too, and neatly nails Spike's bone-headed audition for "Entourage II." But here the comedy laurels must go to Marcia DeBonis, who is fearlessly frumpy as Sonia, the second sister who is at first haplessly unhappy, then poignantly alive when she finds her own wit in a wacky impersonation of Dame Maggie Smith (trust me, it sounds weird, but it works). Meanwhile Martin Moran makes a subtle and level-headed Vanya, even as Haneefah Wood exuberantly chews the scenery as Cassandra, the clairvoyant household help who's prone to such opaquely passionate pronouncements as "Beware Hootie-Pie!" There's only one unsatisfying performance, in fact, and it's simply a case of an actor trying too hard: Candy Buckley is often appealing as the sweet, vain Masha, but pushes her character's tunnel vision so hard she sometimes seems out of breath.

Still, her performance is sketched with many witty touches, like the production itself (David Korin's set, for instance, ever-so-subtly references Snow White's cottage from the Disney cartoon). I did feel, however, that director Jessica Stone had sweetened the script with at least a spoonful more sugar than necessary. True, her version remained close in spirit to that of the Broadway premiere (directed by the dear, departed Nicky Martin, who was once the guiding light at the Huntington). But the rather more sarcastic Trinity Rep version last season I felt hewed closer to Durang's customary tone - which made the play seem a bit more bracing. So in the end, even though I'm glad Christopher Durang got his payday, I think I'll welcome the return of a bit more edge to his writing.

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