Misery loves company, or at least encourages it, in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” The 2013 Tony-winning comedy for best play now at B Street Theatre craftily mashes up plays and themes of the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov and makes ennui entertaining in the process.
“I’m flagrantly disregarding the basic tenets of the stage,” Chekhov wrote to his publisher in 1895 as he was working on his play “The Seagull,” which Durang’s modern play heavily references. Chekhov was creating a naturalist movement in theater, moving away from the predictable melodramas with obvious heroes and villains, abandoning manipulative plotting for moody tone poems focused on the internal tensions of his characters. Not everyone got it then, even as “Seagull’s” first director, Konstantin Stanislavski, noted the action was in the “subtext.”
Here Durang builds an exquisitely hilarious comic wing to the Chekhov shrine with characters plucked from the Russian’s plays and set down in a similar modern setting. Durang liberally references Chekhov’s other masterworks “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” picking off character names and traits, snatches of dialogue, and major story points.
Entirely taking place in the modern morning room of a Bucks County, Pa., estate, the play may as well be set on a Russian country estate. Vanya (Greg Alexander) and Sonia (Stephanie McVay), brother and adopted sister, live in the home of their deceased parents but do nothing much as their movie star sister, Masha (Jamie Jones), pays for the house and its upkeep. Like their namesakes from “Uncle Vanya,” the pair have neither jobs nor apparent avocations. The droll Alexander and comically downcast McVay skillfully inhabit the slow-motion couple.
Vanya and Sonia’s lives revolve around the little rituals of their existence such as having morning coffee while looking out at the pond beyond the window and wondering if particular birds will come that day. Much like Chekhov did with his original characters, Durang makes the plight of his perpetually forlorn people both ridiculous and a little sad.
Their eventless lives are suddenly disrupted when the flamboyant Masha (based on the vain, insecure Arkadina in “Seagull”) turns up with her vacuously glowing hunky new boyfriend, Spike (a splendid Jason Kuykendall). The aging Masha has made a good living on a series of slasher movies called “Sexy Killer,” and though she might have been a fine stage actress at one time, she sold herself out a long time ago. Jones gives one of her customary outstanding performances as the knowingly self-absorbed actress. The household is further enlivened by Tara Sissom’s clairvoyant housekeeper, Cassandra, and Mary Katherine Cobb’s naive neighbor ingenue, Nina (also from “Seagull”) .
Though Chekhov subtly mixed comedy and pathos in his works, Durang’s purposes are much more direct as he locks in on laughs and a comforting soft landing for all. Even the desperation of his purposeless characters is a joke and their blandness a badge. The play’s dramatic climax comes in the form of “rant” extolling the virtues of the nondescript ’50s, the greatness of “Ozzie and Harriet,” the purity of Annette Funicello, the archaic notions of writing a letter and licking a stamp.
Ironically the finale here feels understated as if director Buck Busfield wanted more homage to Chekhov than the glib parody Durang has crafted.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.