Theater Review: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,' Girls Nite Out Productions | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,' Girls Nite Out Productions

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Published November 16, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


From left: Raquel Aronhime, Janet Stambolian and Kris Johnson - COURTESY OF JENN ADAMS/STUDIO 2N
  • Courtesy Of Jenn Adams/Studio 2n
  • From left: Raquel Aronhime, Janet Stambolian and Kris Johnson

Human vanity is always a prime source of comedy, especially when family members compete to top each other with their suffering or their success. Christopher Durang's 2012 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a rogue's gallery of the self-absorbed, all occupying the same fuzzy line between misery and foolishness that Anton Chekhov explored. Durang tops it off with his tangy absurdism sauce, and Girls Nite Out serves up a community theater production with warm humor.

The play won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, an honor few comedies earn. The central event is a costume party that ignites sibling jealousy, but Durang restlessly tosses out a host of goofy events to keep the audience distracted.

In a comfortable house in Bucks County, Pa., middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia are settled into daily routines. They have coffee, look out at the pond, disagree about the number of trees necessary to constitute a cherry orchard and gently needle each other. They complain about their wasted lives while smack-dab in the middle of them. In other words, they behave a bit like characters in a Chekhov play in which the samovar has been replaced by a trip to a Wawa convenience store for coffee and doughnuts.

They've never left their childhood home, staying to take care of their parents through old age and death. Whether it was a noble sacrifice or a neat way to avoid maturity, it's left them both jobless and ill-equipped for productive lives. Sonia avoided dating, and Vanya is gay but far from acknowledging it, so their life's work has been perfecting the art of complaining to each other and indulging the oddities of their cleaning lady, Cassandra.

Masha, their sister, left home to pursue acting and has made it to the low-B-list level thanks to an early job in a silly, sexy action movie franchise. She owns the house and pays the bills and has her own source of self-pity: She's now getting offered grandmother roles.

Masha pays a visit and is eager to show off her all-body/no-brains boyfriend. Spike is way too young for her, and Masha alternates between delight in sustaining his sexual interest and anxiety that he'll wander off like a puppy seeking a chew toy. During her visit, that danger appears in the form of young Nina, who lives across the pond and dazzles Spike. But Nina is more interested in Vanya, who strikes her as a father figure, giving her a good excuse to call him Uncle Vanya.

Nate Beyer and Jennifer Warwick - COURTESY OF JENN ADAMS/STUDIO 2N
  • Courtesy Of Jenn Adams/Studio 2n
  • Nate Beyer and Jennifer Warwick

The three siblings were named for Chekhov characters by intellectual parents devoted to community theater; the names doom them to a life of introspection. Enjoying the play doesn't require getting the Chekhov in-jokes, though it does feel like each one you spot should bring you closer to earning your Russian Drama badge.

It's been 12 years since the two founders of Girls Nite Out appeared onstage together. Jennifer Warwick, playing Masha, and Janet Stambolian, playing Cassandra, reunite in this show. The company's mission to involve women onstage and backstage remains alive and well.

The play is filled with small comic spectacles that viewers can enjoy in smorgasbord fashion, but Durang's real skill here is redirecting the audience's attention with eccentric excess.

As Vanya, Kris Johnson buries the character in dry disdain until Vanya nervously shares his avant-garde play with the family. This cringe-worthy masterwork is a mockery of a mockery, Durang's takeoff of Chekhov's symbolist play-within-a-play in The Seagull.

Nina performs the play, converting an abstract description of postapocalyptic Earth into a dance piece that becomes exquisite physical comedy. Shannen Dando is hilarious at conveying Nina's inane sincerity and captivating as she romps with the abandon that bad art requires.

From left: Kris Johnson, Nate Beyer, Jennifer Warwick and Shannen Dando - COURTESY OF JENN ADAMS/STUDIO 2N
  • Courtesy Of Jenn Adams/Studio 2n
  • From left: Kris Johnson, Nate Beyer, Jennifer Warwick and Shannen Dando

Spike is eager to show off his body and spends a lot of time in nothing but attention-getting underwear. Nate Beyer pulls off a fun reverse striptease and courageously maintains an imbecile's pride in his physique.

Masha plans to dress her siblings as supporting cast to her costume at the party. Instead of accepting the demeaning outfit Masha has in mind, Sonia dons a sequined gown and tiara. Raquel Aronhime brings out the character's joy in one-upping her sister, then shows Sonia gaining self-esteem in a sweet phone call.

Masha spends the whole play seeking an admiring audience from her family now that she's losing her screen fans. With comic neediness, Warwick can land a joke and launches her zingers with precision. Masha aches for control, and Warwick gives her gestures the deportment of a tantrum.

Cassandra cleans house, but not before hyperbolic lighting periodically douses her in hellscape red light as she issues prophecies that are at once true, hard to believe and ignored. Stambolian goes in and out of her accent but never stops scampering, much to the delight of the audience. She plays to the gallery with an indomitable love of performance itself.

As these vignettes suggest, Durang's play is a collection of fits and starts, and the comedy runs from smart repartee to cartoonish voodoo spells. Funny but formless, the play asks viewers to sit back and enjoy a ride without a destination.

Director Nan Murat keeps the pace lively. A large crew created set, costumes, lighting and sound. The visual highlight is a cherry orchard evoked with a single well-made, well-lit tree shimmering before a mural of other trees.

The script flirts with the danger of steeping viewers in too much baseline despondency, not to mention a Vesuvian rant about the good old days. It's only funny if it's not too tedious, and this production is occasionally stuck on the surface, enacting complaints rather than pinpointing the folly of them. But true geysers of laughter spout up, and there's an abiding warmth in watching amateur actors enjoying themselves while connecting with an appreciative audience.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Silly Pity"

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