Only to Go to Norwalk

Review of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Music Theatre of Connecticut

An academic couple, obsessed with theater in Bucks County, PA, raise a brood they name after Chekhov characters. When we meet them, the progeny are middle-aged and mom and dad are just a memory. Vanya (Jim Schilling) lives with adopted sister Sonia (Cynthia Hannah) in a house supported by sister Masha (Jodi Stevens)—the way Vanya and niece Sonya live on an estate that supports his academic former brother-in-law, her father, in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Masha, divorced five times, is an aging film star, best-known for the many sequels of Sexy Killer, a slasher movie and cash-cow that sustains her career, though she’d rather be playing classic theatrical roles like her parents did—particularly her namesake Masha, the dissatisfied married sister in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

 Vanya (Jim Schilling), Masha (Jodi Stevens), Sonia (Cynthia Hannah)

Vanya (Jim Schilling), Masha (Jodi Stevens), Sonia (Cynthia Hannah)

Every inch a grand diva in her own mind—like Irina, the grande dame in Chekhov’s The Seagull—Masha returns for a visit to the area with her new boy-toy Spike (Christopher DeRosa), who enjoys disrobing in company. She plans to attend a fancy dress party nearby with a theme she expects everyone to sign onto: Snow White and her attendant dwarfs; Sonia’s insistence on playing Maggie Smith playing the Wicked Queen makes for a delightful battle of sisterly wills.

 Cynthia Hannah (Sonia)

Cynthia Hannah (Sonia)

For additional comedy and complications, we have: Nina (Carissa Massaro), an utterly guileless local teen fan of Masha whom Spike may be taking a shine to and who may become Vanya’s muse, as Nina does for Konstantin in The Seagull, and a cleaning woman named Cassandra (Katie Sparer), who, like her namesake in ancient Greek myth, tends to mouth unheeded warnings. The cast enters into the comic spirit with full sails, with Stevens particularly well cast in a role originated on Broadway by Sigourney Weaver.

 Jodi Stevens (Masha), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

Jodi Stevens (Masha), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

The plot’s thinness makes dialogue drive the play. Durang masters a low-key comedy that winks at the ennui and gloom of the usual Chekhovian drama, while aping ironically the bright zest of sit-com-like patter. Any character is apt at any time to deliver a bathetic bon mot or give a terse existential tweak to someone else’s pleasantry. Directed with perhaps a bit too much respect for the material by Pamela Hill (which means the show runs longer and more slowly than it should), Durang’s play is best when it feels like a modern drama class adopting a modern classic for TV viewers. The laughs come from the incongruity and from the fact that each character is a self-involved cartoon. And in that, it is an apt mirror for our era where “the selfie” replaced the Self.

 Carissa Massaro (Nina), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

Carissa Massaro (Nina), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

Cartoonish and gently satirical, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the Tony for Best Play in 2013, recent enough to feel startlingly contemporary, with its sense of the social landscape as influenced by online life, while playing with knowing familiarity on the kind of family dramas that have long been mainstays of theater, from Chekhov to O’Neill and on. Sonia, who Hannah plays as a basically agreeable and sympathetic matron who may be reaching the end of her tether, has a tendency to call the family’s stand of 10 or so cherry trees “a cherry orchard.”

 Cynthia Hannah (Sonia), Jodi Stevens (Masha), Jim Schilling (Vanya)

Cynthia Hannah (Sonia), Jodi Stevens (Masha), Jim Schilling (Vanya)

She also tends to watch for a heron by the pond and to claim her kinship with wild turkeys. As the adopted, unnecessary sister, she’s an amusing collection of misgivings, hurt feelings, and resentment, a perfect foil for Vanya, a nebbishy n’er-do-well, who, like his namesake, believes that life has passed him by, even while hoping to achieve something worthwhile before it’s all over. Schilling’s second act harangue has the jocular and despairing delivery of a man giving up on a world that already gave up on him, and feels decidedly apropos for the Norwalk-Westport area as comfortably removed from the action in the City.

 Jim Schilling (Vanya)

Jim Schilling (Vanya)

Durang has written more biting and loopier plays, but this one has the likable oddity of neighbors we try to get on with even while finding them resistant to our sympathies. It’s as if the Chekhovian veneer that sustains much naturalistic drama has been allowed to molder until our irreverent American under-paint shows through. MTC’s production, with its comfortable set and intimate thrust space keeps actors and audience on the same level and makes this living-room comedy feel appreciably lived-in and immediate.

 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Scenic Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Sound Design: Sarah Pero; Stage Manager: Cameron Nadler

Cast: Christopher DeRosa; Cynthia Hannah; Carissa Massaro; Jim Schilling; Katie Sparer; Jodi Stevens

Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
February 26-March 13, 2016