True, there’s not a whole lot that makes the idea of a southbound slog on the 101 to Los Angeles seem palatable. One glittering exception would be Christopher Durang’s Tony award-winning play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum. Somehow Durang has distilled the Chekhovian tropes of angst, jealousy, failure, and ennui and alchemized them into comic gold.
We first encounter the dashed hopes of Masha laid bare by the incomparable Kristine Nielsen, reprising her Tony nominated performance, and the resigned ineffable sadness of Vanya, played by Mark Blum with sardonic gentility and good humor as they have their morning coffee while lamenting the paths not taken in their sorry lives. Masha complains that Vanya has never proposed marriage after all their years together under the same roof. Ever so gently, he reminds her that they are brother and sister. Masha suggests that, as she was adopted, there might be some wiggle room there. Of course, Durang’s Vanya is gay so it really is out of the question, as he cautiously points out.
This delicious family stew boils over with the arrival of their sister Sonia, an over- the-hill movie star, played by Christine Ebersol in high dudgeon with her boy toy Spike (David Hull) cavorting in his underwear and getting a rise out of Vanya as well as the ladies. When Nina, the eager and beautiful young ingenue played with dewy wonderment by Liesel Allen Yeager, comes by to solicit Sonia’s autograph, all bets are off, and all eyes — especially Vanya’s — are on Spike. Throughout, there are loony riffs on The Seagull, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya, and a running gag on the family’s meager cherry orchard (“its just nine trees!”).
Punctuating the family saga is Cassandra, the family’s maid played with saucy gusto by Shalita Grant. Grant delivers Cassandra’s dire prognostications like a Greek chorus on steroids. Show stopping moments of sustained hilarity include Masha channeling Maggie Smith to find her inner diva at a costume party and Vanya reciting a litany of remembrances of things past, from lickable stamps to the “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Do not miss this homage to Chekhov, to theater, and to life by one of America’s greatest playwrights. David Hyde Pierce, who played Vanya in the Broadway production, expertly directs with understated glee. Well worth the trek on the 101 — even the 405.