Left to right: Ellen McQueeney, Andrew Butterfield, Kraig Swartz, Aly Perry
The most popular comedy on the theater circuit right now, and the winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, keeps its characters in bathrobes or fairy-tale costumes or shirtless for most of its playing time. Despite the title's reference to Anton Chekhov, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike relies on costumes to tell much of the story, and playwright Christopher Durang uses Chekhov as nothing more than a trampoline to send some cartoonish characters flying high. Vermont Stage Company's production elicits hearty laughs, and director Cristina Alicea succeeds at adding depth and warmth to Durang's silly story.
Vanya and his sister Sonia, now in their fifties, have never left home. They took care of their now-dead parents, and whatever maturity they needed to be caregivers hasn't sufficed to propel them out into the world. Other than bantering with Cassandra, a cleaning lady constantly spouting dire warnings of future calamities, not much lies ahead for them and painfully little lies behind.
Their sister Masha, by contrast, has built a low-grade movie career. She starred in a trashy action series but has been trending lower ever since, and it's her money that supports the family. When she arrives for a visit, she brings along a doltish boyfriend a generation younger. Spike knows his best feature is his physique and finds any excuse to show it off. That's plenty of fun for Masha until Spike locks eyes on Nina, a young girl next door.
The three siblings were named for Chekhov characters by their theater-loving parents, and their lives of simple disappointment parallel events in the Russian dramatist's complex, tragicomic works. The play may beg the viewer to spot the similarities, but the comparison neither enhances Durang's work nor illuminates Chekhov's. It's best to suspend the hunt while watching the play.
In the same way that Durang renders Chekhov's situations silly by pasting them into a modern context, the reviewer is tempted to use the contrast between Durang and Chekhov to pin the play to the mat — take that! But neither of these are fair fights. Instead, consider Durang's style on its own terms. He builds a base of "Seinfeld"-esque normalcy, mines those attitudinal jokes for a while, then injects the play with a spurt of surrealism nobody sees coming. With hyperbolic outbursts like Cassandra's voodoo vamping and Spike's athletic showboating, Durang keeps the audience on its toes.
In this production, Lili Gamache's Sonia supplies the humor's human touch. Gamache explores what it means for Sonia not to have fully grown up, making her giddy and impulsive, and weaving vulnerability through her immaturity. When someone mentions the possibility of doughnuts, her eyes light up. And when it looks like she might find love, she summons hidden reserves of courage to pursue it. Gamache is a fine comic, but she's even better at building a character we can care about. One moment she's tugging the corner of her sweater with a childish fidget; the next, she's gliding through the room with imperial posture, her tiara and sequins serving as an exclamation point. Gamache reveals Sonia's real heart, giving us permission to laugh at her and to hope for her.
Kraig Swartz makes Vanya the calm presence in the eye of the storm. Swartz keeps Vanya's placid suffering at a low boil, and demonstrates the warm, unquestioning sibling bond he shares with Sonia by remaining charmingly unsurprised by all she says and does. His comic rhythms drain the last drop out of Durang's bon mots, and he's a master of the quiet "Why me?" reaction.
As Masha, Ellen McQueeney surfs grandly on the role's big wave of narcissism. Durang underwrote this part, and McQueeney plays it with eyebrows arched, as if she's in on the joke instead of suffering as Masha descends from leading lady to low-paying grandmother roles. Masha never feels the pain of overweening pride confronting diminishing applause, but McQueeney still lands the laugh lines.
To Spike, a role that requires a good body, Andrew Butterfield brings a great one, adding scene-stealing physical prowess to produce a few surprises only live theater can offer. Spike's depth goes no further than his prime pecs, and Butterfield gives him the carefree stupidity of an entirely unexamined life. Alicea makes the mistake of aiming his struts and stunts right at the audience, so Butterfield doesn't pause to notice the effect he's having on other characters. It's a missed opportunity to show Spike's emotional limits, not just his physical majesty, but Butterfield still delights.
Aly Perry supplies Nina with bottomless energy and appealing spontaneity. She positively glows with youth and bounces back from anything, even the insult of being swaddled in a dumpy costume as Dopey the dwarf. The adults around her are jaded, but in Perry's hands, Nina shows a poignant enthusiasm for theater that amounts to a ray of hope.
Ito Aghayere brings a dancer's energy to Cassandra, whirling, lunging and pouncing as she unreels predictions. The character is entirely absurd, so the performance skill required is heroic commitment to a nonsense role. Aghayere is well up to the task. She extracts the laughs from Durang's goofy conflation of Greek tragedy and modern fear, and when her voodoo works, her street-smart pride is infectious.
The set designed by Blair Mielnik consists of a triangular playing space backed by a wonderfully detailed wall with three entrances and a window. Mielnik creates a moneyed, rustic feel by giving the space rambling width, then provides depth and texture with columns, wainscoting, crown molding and a serene yellow-and-white color scheme. The set's fastidious realism forms a nice base for the play's oddball leaps into the absurd. But with so many hotel-neutral Audubon prints as décor, Mielnik fails to give the home any sense of a particular family.
The confined, triangular space poses challenges for Alicea's staging of the action. With the audience seated so close, the wide space gives some exchanges the feel of a tennis match. That Alicea conveys the fun of the play despite the limits on sight lines is an accomplishment. And her attention to the deeper qualities of the characters results in a warm, compassionate look at fundamentally dotty people.
Punching holes in realism while building jokes out of quotidian ironies, the play necessarily lurches from big farce to clever wit and back again. Durang's something-for-everyone style is far from Chekhov, but entertaining in its own right. Though the lightweight characters experience only minor sorrows, zapping them in a microwave set to zany makes for a fun night at the theater.
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.