In the director’s note for this production, Katie Laris quotes playwright Christopher Durang as saying that to create Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike he “took characters and themes from Chekhov and put them in a blender.” As with so many of the special shakes made every minute all over this beautiful land, it’s probably wise to ask what else is going in there. As indicated by the polysyndetonic title, this is a show that keeps adding more and more and more things into the mix, and some of them, like Spike, are conspicuously not from Chekhov.
Theater allusions and inside backstage jokes abound, but so do clichés and overly familiar set ups. Masha (Ann Guynn) occupies the high ground when it comes to actual theater experience—she’s a working actress with successful stage and lucrative screen appearances to boast about—but every other character turns out to have their own way of scrambling up the slopes of the theatrical Parnassus. The maid Cassandra (Marion Freitag) delivers warnings that go unheeded, just like her Ancient Greek namesake, and just in case you missed that, she does so in speeches that are recognizable as a kind of lunatic pastiche of what Ancient Greek tragedy sounds like in English translation. Sonia (Leslie Ann Story) improvises such a convincing and amusing impression of dame Maggie Smith that she takes on some of her subject’s allure, or at least is said to have done so at a costume party that conveniently takes place offstage.
Youngsters Spike (Drew Leighty) and Nina (Alizah A. Walton) are both ambitious young actors, although she offers a considerably more literary approach than Spike, who is portrayed as a kind of generational simpleton in a role that appears designed to console the less ripped among us with the hopeful observation that great abs must come at the expense of intelligence. Nice thought that, but unlikely to be true.
And what about Vanya (Jay Carlander), or as Nina insists on calling him, “Uncle Vanya”? He’s a closet(ed) playwright with a Chekhov fixation. What this means for the audience is a cascade of witty references that sometimes land and other times fall flat. Despite some fine performances, in particular Guynn’s valiant effort to create a center that will hold this together, the story, like Masha, comes apart under closer examination, with the superficial layer of Chekhov revealing a more pedestrian set of concerns at the core. Desperately jealous of her boy toy Spike, vain, bossy, rude, imperious, and cruel, Masha redeems her misbehavior with a supposedly endearing self-awareness, but like so much of the play’s subtext, this gets acted first and then spelled out in a way that tends to negate the initial impact. In the end, saddling these characters with names that tie them to Chekhov exaggerates, rather than reduces, the gap between that writer’s achievement and the abilities of Christopher Durang.
There were some interesting moments in the second act, but the best of them involved actors performing monologues rather than working with one another as an ensemble. I’d love to see these performers again soon, especially rising star Alizah Walton, but this play, despite its Tony imprimatur and Pat Frank’s splendid set, failed to take full advantage of their talents.