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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 3 weeks ago

Players Centre's warm comedy sparkles with the spirit of Anton Chekhov

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'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' hits the stage at Players Centre for Performing Arts.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is now on stage at the Players Centre for Performing Arts. 

The play lifts assorted characters, tropes and situations from Anton Chekhov’s plays and short stories, including squabbling siblings, a family estate on the verge of being sold, a lake full of loons and a cherry orchard, albeit a small one. (No shotgun over the mantelpiece, in case you were wondering.)

Don’t let the literary references put you off. If you don’t know the difference between Anton Chekhov and Ensign Chekhov on “Star Trek,” no problem. Durang’s play stands on its own as the story of a dysfunctional family bottled up in the same house.

The action unfolds on the family’s lakeside estate in rural Pennsylvania — a cottage, not a dacha. Mom and Dad have moved on to the dacha in the sky. Being theater people, they named their kids after characters in Chekhov’s greatest hits. In the material realm, they left the cottage to Masha (Eve Caballero), a Hollywood star who turned her back on the Stanislavsky Method to earn big bucks in the exploitive “Sexy Killer” series. Masha travels the world making movies. Sonia (Ronda Hewitt) and Vanya (Jim Floyd) look after the house while she’s away and live rent-free — that’s the deal. But Masha’s no spring chicken, and the sexy roles are drying up along with the big checks. You know the deal can’t last forever. And it doesn’t. Masha pops in with the exhibitionistic Spike (Scott Ehrenpreis), her latest boytoy. She blithely informs her brother and adopted sister that she’s planning to sell the old place. It’s a good thing there’s no handy shotgun.

From here, the plot takes a drunkard’s walk. Cassandra (Nancy Pastore), the housekeeper, makes dire, unbelievable prophecies like her namesake. Nina (Sami Wilde) appears, a willowy doppelganger for the wide-eyed ingénue in “The Seagull.” There’s also a costume party and various revelations. 

Without making too much of a fuss, Vanya, Sonia and Masha grow up a little. Spike doesn’t. There’s no earth-shattering climax. But the status quo has been quietly shattered.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is a Tony Award winning comedy by Christopher Durang

It’s a very funny play, though it’s not all laughs. It isn’t a parody either. (I saw a big-budget production that took that approach — and it fell flat.)

Jeffery Kin’s direction makes Durang’s material work. Kin supplies the missing ingredient — warmth. As corny as it may sound, he makes me care about the characters. A post-modern puppet show is boring as hell. A play about people can grab my attention. His approach did.

Jeff Weber’s set is a cozy, unpretentious nest. Comfy but not flashy, it gives you a hint at the family’s parents. Ethan Vail’s lighting perfectly suits the play’s sunny spirit. Jared Walker’s costume designs are great, especially Masha’s ridiculous Snow White outfit at the costume ball.

The actors all get a chance to shine. Caballero’s Masha is utterly self-involved, self-centered and self-satisfied, but still somehow charming. Floyd’s Vanya is a gruff middle-aged bear—and he hits it out of the park in a soliloquy against the depersonalizing cellphones, tweets and Twitters of our digital age. Hewitt’s Sonia practically jumps out of her skin when a man she met at the costume party asks her out on a date. Sami Wilde’s Nina exudes true charm. (“True” being the operative word. There’s nothing more obnoxious than fake charm.) Pastore’s over-the-top Cassandra never fails to get laughs. Ehrenpreis’ preening Spike is funny, despite the limitations of his one-dimensional character.

‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ runs through Nov. 11. Courtesy photo

Durang is a witty writer, don’t get me wrong. He throws one-liners like well-aimed darts and has a knack for sprinkling his dialogue with off-hand character revelations. Occasionally, he’s a bit too clever. Cassandra’s prophecies are a tad overdone. Vanya’s speech could’ve easily been cut in half. The barrage of Chekhov references occasionally feels like fan service for literature majors. The question remains …

Did Kin find the humanity in Durang’s script? Or did he create a humanity on stage that wasn’t on the page?

In all honesty, I’m still trying to figure it out.

Either way, it’s a very entertaining show. Oh look …

The loons!

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