Christopher Durang Finds Big Laughs in Chekhov
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Christopher Durang Finds Big Laughs in Chekhov

Russian melancholy gets an upbeat American makeover in the U.S. playwright's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike stars, left to right, Steven Sutcliffe, Fiona Reid, Jennifer Dale, and Luke Humphrey  Photo by Jeremie Andrew

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike stars, left to right, Steven Sutcliffe, Fiona Reid, Jennifer Dale, and Luke Humphrey. Photo by Jeremie Andrew.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge Street)
Runs to April 5
stars 3andahalf9

Two famous playwrights hover over Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award–winning Broadway hit Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now playing at the Panasonic Theatre. The first one, obviously, is the Russian titan Anton Chekhov. Durang’s comedy, as its title suggests, is a parody of (and homage to) the characters and situations in Chekhov’s great plays The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. The other playwright, although only referenced by Durang twice (once obliquely), is that American master of the crowd-pleasing, zinger-slinging comedy, Neil Simon.

Durang, who made his name in the 1980s with such absurdist-flavoured black comedies as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, has, in his late-middle-age, written the kind of upbeat, lighthearted sitcom perfected by Simon, the man who gave us The Odd Couple. The themes here may be Chekhovian—regret over wasted lives, longing for an idealized past, hopeless inertia—but the mood is definitely Simonian.

To give Durang credit, however, he’s always been a wittier writer than Simon, relying less on punchlines than on humorous characterizations. And he’s well served in this co-production between David Mirvish and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, which boasts perhaps Canada’s funniest character actress, the inimitable Fiona Reid, as well as the excellent Steven Sutcliffe and Jennifer Dale, who easily fill the roles originally played by David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver in New York. They’re joined by three talented younger actors in this gentle, predictable, but always amusing American riff on Russian melancholy.

The Vanya and Sonia referred to are a brother and sister, both on the other side of 50 and living in their family’s farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The pair initially stayed home to nurse their elderly, dementia-afflicted parents—academics and amateur-theatre aficionados, hence their children’s names. Now, with the parents dead, Sonia (Reid) and Vanya (Sutcliffe) continue to hang around, idle and bitter, regretting lost opportunities and bickering with each other.

Enter Masha (Dale), their errant sister, an aging, much-married Hollywood star whose money pays for the farmhouse. She’s making one of her rare visits to the old homestead, her current boy toy in tow. That would be Spike (Luke Humphrey), a studly young actor whose only claim to fame so far is that he almost got cast in a sequel to Entourage. Masha has also brought along a Snow White costume for a masquerade party being thrown by some neighbours, and she’s wrangled invitations for Vanya and Sonia, too.

It speaks to Masha’s diva nature that she insists her siblings come disguised as two of Snow White’s dwarves, and to Vanya’s passive resignation that he happily agrees. Sonia, however, has been nursing a lifetime of resentment towards her sister and it manifests itself in an adamant refusal to dress up as Dopey. Instead, she insists on going as the evil queen—only her version ends up rocking a sequined gown and imitating Maggie Smith in California Suite. (A film written by Neil Simon—there’s that oblique reference for you.)

Reid’s turn as Sonia doing Dame Maggie is delicious—all the more so since Smith’s withering style of delivery has become intimately familiar to millions in recent years, thanks to her role as the waspish dowager countess on Downton Abbey. Reid nails Smith’s voice and mannerisms so splendidly that it’s almost a shame when her character has to revert to her usual flat tones.

The Maggie Smith bit is one of the funny set pieces upon which Durang has strung his ambling plot. The others include a “reverse striptease” by Spike, which inadvertently excites and torments the gay Vanya, and a reading of a play written by Vanya in the style of Konstantin’s pretentious symbolic drama from The Seagull. (This particular spoof will feel especially fresh for Torontonians who caught Crow’s Theatre’s recent sold-out revival of that play.) Like Konstantin, Vanya gets help staging his play from an aspiring young actress named Nina (Ellen Denny)—the girl next door and Masha’s ostensible rival for Spike’s attentions.

Masha, despite her name, bears more of a resemblance to The Seagull‘s Arkadina, the egocentric older actress—except that Masha, like her sibs, is all too aware of her own foibles. Dale is thoroughly enjoyable as the fading star who admits to being a bitch even as she revels in playing the part. “I’m lovably monstrous,” she purrs.

Sutcliffe’s mild-mannered Vanya, meanwhile, seems to embody all of Chekhov’s lovably ineffectual older men. While he may lust for Spike, he ends up bonding with the sweet, sincere Nina. But like his foolish namesake, he also finally explodes in an outburst of anger and absurdity. Enraged when he catches Spike texting during the play reading, he launches into a long, loopy tirade against modern technology that somehow becomes a silly, sentimental ode to the wholesome pop culture of the 1950s. It’s a virtuosic but overdone comic monologue in which Durang seems to be having it both ways: making fun of nostalgic old geezers, while at the same time appealing to the fond memories of the baby boomers who attend Broadway (and Mirvish) shows.

That sort of audience pandering is classic Neil Simon, as is the conscious effort by Durang to make sure everyone watching his comedy gets the jokes. This is a play that prides itself in being accessible even if you don’t have a clue about Chekhov. Or anything else, it would seem. His characters are continually explaining his references for us, as if the playwright were annotating his own play.

Still, Durang has retained his sophomoric delight in parody and it rubs off on us. It helps that the actors have such a great time with it. Director Dean Paul Gibson has done some brilliant casting and has given the show, despite its obvious star turns, a real ensemble feel. Denny, who spent a couple of seasons playing Anne Shirley in Charlottetown, brings authentic shiny-eyed charm to the part of Nina. Humphrey, a Stratford Festival up-and-comer, is dumb-but-delectable perfection as Spike. And a comically fierce Audrey Dwyer repeatedly steals scenes as a cleaning lady named after the mythical seer Cassandra, who can’t open her mouth without uttering prophesies both dire and ridiculous.

It is often said that English-language productions of Chekhov fail to adequately capture the comedy in his plays. That may be true, but with Vanya and Sonia and Mash and Spike, Christopher Durang has likely written the first play in which the words “Chekhov” and “laugh riot” belong in the same sentence.