Tuesday, October 28, 2014

theatre review VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, Arizona Theatre Company, Oct. 11

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here.

Suzanne Bouchard and Suzanne Warmanen

After I saw the world premiere of Christopher Durang's latest playVanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, two years ago, I commented that it was such a successful comedy it was destined to have a healthy life in regional theatres. Not only did it win the Tony last year for Best Play but it was recently announced that it is the most produced non-Shakespearean play across the country this season. Durang's comedy is centered around a trio of middle-aged siblings dealing with the shortcomings of their lives, and the play is receiving a superb production from the Arizona Theatre Company that opens their 2014 season with a well-honed ensemble cast, a fantastic set design and sure footed direction. This is the Arizona premiere of the show and also a co-production with the Guthrie Theatre where this production ran earlier in the summer.

For this play, Durang has borrowed liberally from the plots of various Chekhov plays. But, by putting the plots of those plays into a pot, stirring with a spoon and setting on simmer, he has come up with a humorous takeoff on them, crafting a well written comedy that is set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Vanya, Sonia and Masha are siblings whose parents were so literally inclined that they named their three children after characters in Chekhov's plays.

Masha, a successful movie actress, is always working, so she left her two siblings behind at the house they all grew up in to care for their aging parents. The parents are now both gone and Masha has returned home to show off her new boy toy Spike, attend a costume party, and drop some bad news about that house they're all connected to. While Masha was away working and making enough money to pay for the upkeep of the house and the expenses required to care for her parents, Vanya and Sonia feel they have been left behind and are trapped; they are angry at Masha for the exciting life she has led while they've had no lives at all. It is an interesting view of two sides of an issue that many have to deal with, the care of aging parents and the toll it takes on those involved, and how it can pit siblings against each other. The themes in the play—sibling relationships, the selling off of the family house, wasted lives and even a play within a play all—are drawn from Chekhov's plays including The SeagullThree Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. But of course this is a comedy, not a Chekhovian drama, so Durang wrings every possible comic bit out of these situations, including lines like "if everyone took antidepressants Chekov wouldn't have anything to write about," that not only get huge laughs but connect the characters and plot with the works of Chekov.

Suzanne Warmanen pretty much gets the best material of the three siblings as Sonia, the sister who comments on her life by saying "nothing ever changes." It's the best written part with a wide range of emotional outbursts and well-written comic lines. Warmanen expertly plays both sides of the role with several stand-out moments, from her impeccable and insanely comical impression of Maggie Smith to her heartbreaking delivery of a phone call Sonia receives in the second act. It's an award-worthy performance. Suzanne Bouchard has the difficult task of being the antagonist of the piece as sister Masha, yet her ability to make Masha not only look like an ass but one that we also root for says a lot about Bouchard's skill as an actress and her trust and faith in the material. Like Warmanen, Bouchard adds a grounded touch of realism to the part, with both women making us believe the characters they are playing are soul searching and naturally coming up with answers about their lives and the decisions they now need to make.

The part of Vanya is more the subdued observer, at least for the first half of the play. Charles Janasz instills a perfect sense of the onlooker who tries to mediate the insanity around him. Vanya also gets a comical monologue that is triggered by Spike's texting at an inappropriate time that is proficiently delivered by Janasz.

Also in the cast are Joshua James Campbell as Spike, who brings a nice combination of youth, foolishness, and sex appeal, hitting all the right notes of the part; Ali Rose Dachis as the young woman who lives next door, giving the character an appropriate ethereal quality; and Isabell Monk O'Connor as the cleaning lady, who at first seems more of a throwaway part, but turns out to be very connected to the actions of the play. I especially like how Dachis delivers the sweet running gag where she says that Vanya reminds her of her uncle so she will call him "Uncle Vanya" as well as O'Connor's premonition outbursts and her hilarious use of a voodoo doll. Those humorous bits are just icing on this comical cake.

Director Joel Sass clearly knows how to bring both the humorous and serious moments to life as well as how to stage the action across the expansive set to make it both intimate as well as not too claustrophobic. With a cast delivering on all cylinders with ease, Sass must also be commended for bringing the right balance between the comedic and dramatic moments to allow both to have resonance.

Production elements are top notch, including an amazing stone-walled house set design by Todd Rosenthal and character perfect costumes by Ilona Somogyi, with very colorful ones for the costume party they attend. Note that Vanya wears mismatched socks to show his somewhat rumpled character. Lighting designer Barry Browning paints the scenes beautifully—from the bright, sunny morning to the twilight of evening with stars in the sky.

While Durang has had some successes in the past, like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, he's also had his share of misfires, such as Sex and Longing, or plays that while somewhat successful were very much on the odd side like The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and don't get produced a lot. While Vanya and Sonia... manages to be a modern tale with likable, though still somewhat odd characters, thus completely in line with Durang's other works, it also has a huge heart at its center—and that, along with the playwright's smart dialogue, makes it a warm, comical gem. Durang has crafted his most accessible play, and this production is just as funny as it was at the McCarter and in New York. The Arizona Theatre Company production is a sure-fire comic hit.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Arizona Theatre Company runs through October 26th, 2014, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased atwww.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 – 6995

Photo by Jeff Smith

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