Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

DSC08261Masha (Dena Martinez) and her “boy toy” Spike (Rob August). Photo by Stephen Moorer.

By Philip Pearce

MANY OF Christopher Durang’s comedies lean heavily on pastiche. If you’re unfamiliar with the original cult favorite being sent up in works like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls (U.S. Southern Gothic drama) or Das Lusitania Songspiel (the Kurt Weil and Lotte Lenya German theater of the 1930s), you’re probably not going to catch on to some of the in-jokes getting laughs from members of the theatrical in-crowd.

If the mere title of Durang’s 2013 Tony Award winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike suggests you’d better brush up your Uncle Vanya, Cherry Orchard and Seagull, take heart. Most of the Chekhov references are sporadic and incidental or at least clearly enough explained in the dialogue to ensure a happy evening of energetic comic acting and surreal humor at PacRep’s intimate Circle Theatre in Carmel. And Durang’s script along with Kenneth Kelleher’s fast and loud farce direction won’t force you into much wistful and reflective Chekhovian subtext.

To start with, Vanya and Sonia and Masha aren’t rural Russians, they’re loud and vocal East Coast American siblings (Vanya and Masha biological, Sonia adoptive) whose Ivy League parents suffered from an overdose of Russian literature and community theater.

Like Durang himself, Vanya and Sonia live in a converted Bucks County farmhouse theirs paid for by the earnings of their movie star younger sister Masha. While Masha has been off enjoying a succession of profitable film roles and five failed marriages, Sonia and Vanya have stayed at home, seen their late parents off and now spend their days arguing domestic trivia and watching their back-garden frog pond for signs of an elusive blue heron. If that recurring piece of offstage birdlife suggests some Chekhov symbolism, well, Durang usually refuses to go along with the received cliché.

So early in Act One, the bipolar Sonia decides that, being fifty and notoriously unmarried, she is no blue heron or spring chicken, she’s “a wild turkey!” a claim she screams repeatedly to anyone who will listen. It’s that kind of play. People go along on what start as familiar and predictable tracks and then lurch off unexpectedly into unlikely and sometimes violent sidings. A good example is Sonia’s hilarious opening argument with Vanya about his morning coffee, which ends in two piles of shattered crockery in the family fireplace.

In a failing that echoes a trait of some Chekhov characters, Sonia is so absentminded that she forgets to mention an advance phone message so that the car is pulling up in the drive before anyone else realizes that Masha is arriving from Hollywood accompanied by a new muscular dimwit boyfriend named Spike.

As the discouraged Sonia, Julie Hughett moves brilliantly through a fugue of sullen silences (“I’m not supposed to speak until four-thirty”) and explosive tantrums. It’s an endearing performance full of bipolar ups and downs, one gem being a solo telephone call in Act 2 when, to everyone’s surprise including her own, the hapless Sonia discovers that, by imitating Maggie Smith in Beverly Hills Suite, she has scored some serious matrimonial points with an eligible neighborhood widower named Joe.

Michael D. Jacobs is appealing and patient as the quieter and, yes, more authentically Chekhovian Vanya. But even his stoic forbearance explodes in an extraordinary tour de force tirade, jumbled and repetitious but heartfelt, about the differences between today’s world of solitary tweets, texts and Facebook and his childhood world where everyone tuned in to Howdy Doody, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Davey Crockett and Ozzie and Harriet. (“They were stupid, but what matters is, we all listened to them!”)

Dena Martinez makes a glittery and egocentric Masha, who reveals, almost as a casual aside, that she’s come home to put the house on the market and move her brother and sister into an apartment. She seems far less concerned with this upheaval in living arrangements than in setting up her Disney Snow White costume for a neighborhood fancy dress party, with everyone else in the family done up as supporting cast Dwarfs. Martinez is most effective in Masha’s jealous operatic efforts to hold on to the much younger Spike, who obviously will take sex and admiration wherever they are on offer. Her confrontations with Vanya and Sonia are funny enough, but her quick timing and the vocal quality she adopts sometimes copy Sonia’s manic ravings so closely that there’s a monotony rather than a contrast in the interaction and relationship of the two sisters.

Household messes, ranging from shattered crockery to plans for selling off the house, are skillfully cleared up by a remarkable weekly cleaning lady who lives up to her classical Greek name of Cassandra by offering sudden bursts of prophecy, which in fact actually happen and which nobody listens to before they do. It’s a plum role and the unerringly comic Cindy Womack has never been better. Watch the way she shifts convincingly from workaday domestic normality to spooky bouts of E.S.P. or vindictive voodoo. And notice the difference between her genuine prophetic seizures and the phony imitations she puts on near the final moments of the play.

It’s Rob August as Masha’s would-be movie actor boy toy who sets off Vanya’s unexpected Act Two fit of rage. He’s caught texting while he’s supposed to be watching Vanya’s updating of the poet Konstantin’s play within the play in Chekhov’s The Seagull. One item listed in August’s PacRep program bio is a brief period of competitive wrestling; that physical agility, combined with a sharp sense of comedy, make for a memorable caricature of a strutting self-absorption so intense that Spike is just as happy showing off his rippling muscles to the besotted Masha as to her dazzled gay brother Vanya.

Star of Vanya’s ill-fated play reading is a relentlessly up-beat teen-aged girl Spike has met while splashing around the pond in his underpants. And, would you believe it, she’s got the same name as the ingenue character in The Seagull! She promptly begins to take a much greater interest in linking up with a famous movie star and her siblings than with Spike and his torso. As Nina, Katie Rose Krueger is beautiful, dim, hopeful and adoring of everyone else on the premises.

Turns out, Spike is just too boring and predictable to share in a pretty unexpected and un-Chekhovian group happy ending. The play closes with everyone but Spike looking contentedly out to the pond waiting for the arrival of the blue heron, who, like Godot, never appears.