A Dash of Chekhov in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Ab-solutely: Wendy Welch, Evan Fentriss, Bob Hess and Diana Sheehan star in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Uptown Players.
Cross the forlorn siblings in Chekhov's Three Sisters with the squabbling kin in Arrested Development and you get a good idea what the family is like in Christopher Durang's Tony-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It's a brilliant, funny play getting a brilliant production at Uptown Players, directed by B.J. Cleveland and acted by a cracking good cast of six.
Vanya (Bob Hess) lives with his adopted sister Sonia (Wendy Welch) in the sprawling Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home where they grew up and where they have stayed past their sell-by dates, eventually nursing their parents, Russian lit-obsessed academics, to slow and difficult deaths. The house is owned by absent sister Masha (Diana Sheehan), a movie star of some renown thanks to her role as a nymphomaniac psycho killer in a blockbuster action thriller that spawned six high-earning sequels. (Terrific set design, a cutaway of the big stone house, by Clare Floyd DeVries on the stage at Kalita Humphreys Theater.)
Now in their 50s, getting by on dwindling support from Masha, Vanya and Sonia moan about their empty lives. Sad, frumpy spinster and lonely gay brother spend mornings bickering in side-by-side armchairs in the "morning room," watching for their favorite blue heron on the pond outside and arguing whether 10 cherry trees qualify as an "orchard."
Their clairvoyant cleaning lady, Cassandra (Nadine Marissa, affecting popped eyes and a Jamaican accent), rumbles into the room every so often to issue dramatic warnings like "Beware the Hootie Pie!" She seems to know things that might lift Vanya and Sonia out of their slough of despond, but they're so stuck in sadness they don't heed the seeress' predictions. (Hootie Pie, never seen, will cause trouble later on.)
Sounds like Chekhov, right? Like a mash-up of Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull. Exactly as Durang intended. But all the whining about unlived dreams and nostalgia for the past in his play is expressed in hilarious style and with dazzling comic silliness. Instead of likening herself to a seagull, Sonia keeps flapping her arms, saying "I'm a wild turkey!" And her happiest memory of her father is being called "his little artichoke" ... and that he never molested her.
Aging diva Masha suddenly comes home for a surprise visit, accompanied by a much-younger, sixpack-ab-endowed new boyfriend named Spike (Evan Fentriss, making his stage debut and giving a McConaughey-cool performance). Masha's in from L.A. to attend a fancy costume ball at a mansion once owned by Dorothy Parker. She'll be dressed as Walt Disney's version of Snow White; Spike, her Prince Charming. She wants Vanya and Sonia to follow along costumed as two of her seven dwarfs. She also wants to sell the family home and turn them out, a little nugget of info that sends Vanya and Sonia deeper into despair.
One more character enters, named, in further homage to Chekhov, Nina (played by angel-faced Julia Golder, another Dallas stage newcomer and a darn fine young comic actress). Like the character in The Seagull, she's ethereal, a floaty, confectionery presence, calling Vanya "Uncle" and agreeing to go to the ball as a dwarf just to be near the famous Masha.
In the second act, all Durangian hell breaks loose. Instead of being dumpy Dopey, Sonia decks herself out for the ball in a sequined gown and sleek hairdo, going as the Maggie Smith character from the movie California Suite with a touch of Disney's Evil Queen. Here's where Wendy Welch shines, out-sparkling her dress (one of many great costumes by the show's designer, Suzi Cranford; with wigs and makeup by Coy Covington). Welch mimics exactly Smith's nasally accent and imperious attitude, a delicious flip on her character Sonia's dowdy image in the first act. (Later at the party, that accent will attract a suitor, who just might change Sonia's marital status.)
There are oodles of marvy gags in V and S and M and S, not just from what's in the script but from the Uptown Players actors' crisp timing, directorial flourishes and zany approaches to the characters. Hess, a regular star at this company, has never been better than he is as Vanya, delivering an angry eight-minute "aria" at the end of the play that covers Vanya's disgust with modern pop culture and public rudeness. He rewinds to Howdy Doody, Señor Wences and Davy Crockett (on TV), comparing the shared experiences of those Boomer classics with the isolating nature of violent video games. It's his "mad as hell" speech. Hess does it divinely.
As narcissistic Masha, Diana Sheehan, all teeth, eyes and long legs, embodies the fading movie temptress, overacting every moment. "I suppose I'm monstrous, but lovable monstrous, I hope," she says. Well, yes. In the end. After she's lost the boy-toy and come down to earth long enough to see her brother and sister for the sweet, idle, lovable losers they are.
So much happens in Vanya et al and yet Durang manages to weave all the ends together neatly by the time the lights go down. Unlike Chekhov, he doesn't leave his family dangling hopeless and homeless. Each character turns in a new, happy direction, including dumb-but-pretty Spike whose only claim to fame has been coming in third for a role in Entourage 2 for cable. Everybody changes for the better in this play. That doesn't happen in many newer works for the stage. Or older ones either. In the really old ones, most of the characters die in misery. Much more fun to die laughing.
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