At last Thursday's preview performance, Weston Playhouse audience members signaled their delight in Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike with loud, long laughter and a few spontaneous outbursts of applause. There's no question this play can tap an audience's craving for comedy.
Vanya won the 2013 Tony Award for best play, which is a rare honor for a comedy. Weston offers its Vermont premiere with an all-Actors' Equity cast and a polished production, smoothly directed with brisk comic pacing by Steve Stettler.
In present-day Bucks County, Vanya and Sonia are living a pretty close approximation of their namesakes in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which is to say, squandering their lives as caretakers, bickering with each other and feeding on small crumbs of self-pity. Brother and adopted sister tended their now-deceased parents through a long old age while their sister Masha sailed off to achieve financial, if not artistic, success by starring in a series of trashy popular films. Vanya and Sonia have never left the family home, stuck in time and with the names their theatrical parents bestowed on them.
When Masha arrives for a visit with a studly, stupid boyfriend two decades younger, she sets in motion the only two events Durang needs to tell his story. First, there's to be a costume party in the neighborhood, and Masha has brought outfits for Vanya and Sonia; they will accompany her Snow White as two of the Seven Dwarfs. Second, Masha has decided it's time to sell the house now that her Hollywood star is setting. She's paid the mortgage and expenses all these years, and, if she pulls the plug, Vanya and Sonia will have to grow up very fast and very late.
These characters and their problems aren't much of anything, but Durang sprinkles on his special See-What-I-Did-There sauce to play with parallels to Chekhov's oeuvre. Durang is well known for his ability to blend realism and absurdism in just the right, humorous doses. His plays are intoxicating concoctions, though the laughs depend on the audience surrendering to his oddball mixtures.
In Vanya, we watch people taking stock of their lives and finding them wanting. Chekhov mined that vein in all his plays; Durang tests the resonance of superimposing Chekhovian references on contemporary problems. Whether this technique elevates banal, depressed characters into archetypes or cuts self-absorbed people down to size is for the viewer to decide.
Durang has said he did not intend a parody of Chekhov, but it's hard to know what else to call these good-natured superimpositions. When Sonia notes that wild turkeys are clumsy enough to fall out of trees while sleeping, she seizes on the parallel to her own gloomy life and proclaims, "I'm a wild turkey!" It's meant to evoke the ruined Nina of The Seagull lamenting in addled misery, "I'm a seagull."
The play is a Spotter's Guide to the great Russian dramatist. Much of the dialogue, character, plot points and setting has some basis in Chekhov and can spark theatrical connections. But enjoying the play by no means requires familiarity with his work; the comedy will thunder along regardless.
Durang can be subtle — Vanya wants to be Doc, not Grumpy, if he has to wear a dwarf costume; Chekhov had a doctor in nearly all his plays — but he is chiefly interested in showing that what we complain about changes with the times, while complaining itself is eternal.
David Bonanno, as Vanya, and Amelia White, as Sonia, have to carry the most complex comic load, proving that dreary people leading futile lives are both funny and fascinating. Bonanno's restraint — and his soulful, ever-upraised eyebrows — made Vanya sympathetic but never pathetic. White was equally at home in Sonia's pit of despondency and in a triumphant moment when she swipes the spotlight from Masha.
As Masha, Susan Haefner embodies Durang's nuttiest extremes of narcissism. Haefner's approach is broad and big, reaching a peak as she and Sonia undertake a duel to see who can cry harder over her miseries.
Brandon Drea gives boyfriend Spike a hilarious combination of nervous tics and idiotic gestures of confidence. Chin thrust out, he caps trivial statements with self-satisfied thigh slaps, then spends interludes chewing his nails. Drea turns a striptease into both an examination of the character's mental limits and a triumphant display of his vapid physical vanity, and he's so funny we love him for it.
Deonna Bouye enlivens Cassandra, the soothsaying cleaning lady, with polished, powerful dance moves. She sails through speeches stuffed with Durang's three competing tropes: theatrical quotations, nonsensical laugh bait and hints that a portentous truth is finally about to emerge. Bouye lets it all slide through like quicksilver, then grins and flounces to seal the deal.
The set, designed by Howard C. Jones, is an imaginative evocation of a comfortable country back porch. Soaring above the stage is the mere line of a roof's gable end, supported by two pillars of textured rock. Bookcases, a stairwell and suggestions of walls appear as delicate, freestanding elements. Jones captures Durang's blend of realism and fantasy by making the space thoroughly familiar yet abruptly sketched.
Caricature exaggerates. Whether it insults or reveals essence depends on the generosity of the artist. In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang reduces Chekhov's foolish characters to feebler ones who are only there to put on a show. Durang wants to entertain; Chekhov wanted to show human frailty with wit instead of pathos. Both goals are worthy. Save your introspection for Chekhov — Weston is presenting Uncle Vanya later in the season — and see Durang for laughs.