What do you get when you toss “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” “The Seagull” and other chunks of Anton Chekhov’s plays in a Cuisinart and hit frappe? To find out, check out the Asolo Rep’s current production of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Vanya, Sonia and Masha are aging baby boomers living in America, not a dacha on the Black Sea. (Their theatrical parents saddled them with names from Chekhov’s plays.) Vanya and Sonia reside in their shabby genteel childhood home. Their sister, Masha, owns the place and pays for it. She’s a movie star with a fat bank account, thanks to an exploitive series about a crime-fighting nymphomaniac. Vanya and Sonia gripe, feel sorry for themselves, squabble and analyze their own motives in abstract, Chekhovian style. Masha flies into their lives like a self-important hurricane. She’s dressed as Snow White for an upcoming costume parody, but comes off as the Wicked Queen. Spike (who was not named after a Chekhov character) comes attached. He’s a pumped-up boy-toy whose chief pride is a near-miss at a role in “Entourage II.” (That, and constantly stripping down to his underwear.) Thus stripped, Spike takes a dip in the lake and returns with Nina, a wide-eyed neighborhood innocent. (She is not in sexual competition for Spike, though Masha does not buy it.) Cassandra is the Jamaican housekeeper. She speaks prophecies of doom, which nobody believes. (Surprise.) Masha plans to cut down the cherry orchard and — sorry. Masha plans to sell the house and toss her siblings out. That and what to wear to the costume party is the play’s core dramatic tension.
But, hey, it’s a comedy. Tension is not the point. Peter Amster’s start-stop direction keeps the audience laughing. He plays each scene like sketch comedy (which each basically is — more on that later). The comedy kills. The actors do, too.
Anne-Marie Cusson’s Masha is always on, a cartoon caricature of an over-the-top diva addicted to the spotlight. (There is madness to her method: Stanislavsky it ain’t.) Peggy Roeder puts in a performance with heart as Sonia, a wallflower who flowers when she plays Maggie Smith at the masquerade. Tyla Abercrumbie is hilariously convincing going into Cassandra’s prophetic trances. (Abercrumbie could easily start her own religion, though I advise against it.) Tori Grace Hines plays Nina as lighthearted, bright and sweet, but not cloyingly so. By rights, her character should hold a magic wand and fly on fairy wings.
Jefferson McDonald’s Spike has a lot in common with Tigger. He bounces and grins a lot. To extend that analogy, Andrew Sellon’s Vanya would make the perfect Eeyore. He slumps and frowns a lot — except for his crowd-pleasing comic monologue, excoriating the fractured reality of modern miscommunications and longing for the days of Ozzie and Harriet’s adventures.
Each character gets a moment to shine. It’s a comedy, so there is a happy ending, of course. The journey that takes you there is a laugh-a-minute ride. The elements are in place. Each little sketch works, but the play as a whole does not quite work.
What kind of a play is it, anyway?
Is it a parody, or a story that stands on its own? Durang, it seems to me, could not make up his mind. He has stated he did not intend this to be a parody. OK. So, he wrote a half-parody, instead.
The result is a play that does not quite work as parody — with a story that can’t quite stay on its feet.
A funhouse mirror to Chekhov would have been funny, but Durang ducks the parody potential of the material.
A play about three theatrical siblings who strip off their masks and become a family again would have been poignant. But the gags and jokey tone get in the way.
The result is very, very funny. But it’s a good play that could have been better.
I wish he’d made up his mind.
IF YOU GO
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through April 13 at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for more information.