For Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is pretty weak tea. While the play is relatively funny and does have some outrageously inventive moments, the black humor, zany surprise, sheer unfettered impudence and break-the-dishes iconoclasm of Durang's other works is missing. Which may explain why this is the first of the writer's many scripts to have been produced on Broadway -- and with an all-star cast that included David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver. See also: Good Television Is a Real Win
As the title makes clear, the work is (sort of) an homage to Chekhov. Vanya and Sonia, a middle-aged brother and (adopted) sister, stayed home caring for their Alzheimer-ravaged parents, while a third sibling, glamorous Masha, became a wealthy movie star. The two wither quietly in their rather luxurious country house while Masha pays the bills. But then she descends with her young lover, Spike -- he of the stunning body and abs so defined that, as actor Eddie Lopez stripped off his shirt, I couldn't help thinking of James Marsters's Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, particularly since this Spike's actual name is Vlad.
Masha proceeds to stage a series of monstrous, flamboyant displays that would make a drag queen green with envy. She clutches Spike, frets at her own advancing age, remains impervious to the feelings of everyone else. She's determined to go to a costume party at the home of an influential neighbor dressed as Walt Disney's Snow White, and insists that everyone else attend her as dwarves. But Sonia, who up until now has spent her time sighing, complaining and occasionally hurling crockery, suddenly displays an unexpected independence. She trots off to the local thrift shop and returns wearing a glittering, sequin-studded gown: She is going to the party as the Wicked Queen as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars, she explains. There are two additional characters: the maid Cassandra, who lives up to her name by spouting a nonstop stream of catastrophe warnings, and the innocent young neighbor Nina, who quietly befriends poor, self-effacing Vanya.
You don't need to know Chekhov to enjoy this play, but the references do add humor as Sonia repeatedly laments, "I am a wild turkey," and the family bickers about its cherry orchard, which consists of nine or ten trees. Toward the end, the gathering of the clan to hear Nina -- impersonating a molecule -- read Vanya's play about the devastation wrought by global warming seems a comic version of the scene in The Seagull when her namesake speaks Konstantin's words: "All living things, all living things, having completed the doleful cycle, are extinct, and this poor moon sheds his light in vain." There's much that's Chekhovian about the three siblings' despair and the elegaic air that hangs over the house. And just as Chekhov's characters resisted modernity, Vanya springs into a fury when Spike starts texting in the middle of Nina's performance. Only his exasperation -- a lament for stamps you need to lick, phones with rotary dials and television shows of mind-numbing blandness that brought Americans together rather than separating them since there was nothing else to watch -- is diaphragm-shaking funny. And after that, unexpectedly, Durang provides a quietly hopeful and entirely un-Chekhovian ending.
Boy-toy Spike is played by Lopez with a goofy, clattering lack of inhibition interestingly at odds with his magnificent torso. Leslie Shires is a bit of a puppet at first as Nina, though an innocent sweetness often shines in her eyes. Socorro Santiago's Cassandra is sometimes over the top, but more often full-out hilarious. The character of Masha is a stereotype, almost entirely one-dimensional as written, and Kathleen McCall provides a vivid presence but essentially plays her that way: A few more hints of humanity in the first act would have added credibility to the character's newfound compassion in the second. Amelia White is wonderful, and transforms brilliantly from down-at-the-heels, self-pitying Sonia to magnificent Sonia-playing-Maggie-Smith, eventually calming down to reveal a quiet -- almost radiant -- warmth. Sam Gregory's understated performance as Vanya is very effective, too, particularly when he sheds the understatement to launch into his rant about the past. In that moment, the actor's comic genius marries perfectly with the playwright's, and the result is exhilarating -- and hints at how much stronger this brew could have been.
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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 16, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex. For ticket information, call 303-893-4100 or go to denvercenter.org