note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Last year, theatergoers belly-laughed at Apollinaire Theatre’s production of Aaron Posner’s satire, “Stupid F......g Bird,” a naughty, irreverent,contemporary take-off on Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, “The Seagull”. Ironically, that spoof ran almost simultaneously with Huntington Theatre Company’s magnificent, lavish production of “The Seagull,” starring Kate Burton and her son, Morgan Ritchie.
Currently, Boston theatergoers and critics are hailing Huntington Theatre Company’s classy production of Christopher Durang’s two-act, two-hour Tony Award-winning Broadway comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”. Durang claims his play isn’t a direct spoof of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” It’s a mishmash of comedic strains, lumping together some of “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” “Uncle Vanya,” contemporary, timeless themes and mixed-up characters.
Diehard Chekhov enthusiasts and Chekhov naysayers all enjoy the play, regardless of whether they recognize key phrases, scenes, and characters, which Durang has tossed into the air and let them land where he wants - in his Bucks County, Pa. backyard.
Durang’s idyllic sanctuary in the woods contains many elements and spots like the crumbling, Russian country manse Uncle Vanya and his sullen, adopted, depressed, dumpy. probably bi-polar sister, Sonia, inhabit. Like Sonia, 52, and Vanya,57, Durang and his lifetime partner enjoy viewing their (unseen to us) cluster of cherry trees, a pond, and its natural wildlife, including a visiting blue heron (no, not a seagull).
Durang is a big fan of Chekhov, so he isn’t mocking the great Russian author; he’s borrowing some characters, their dysfunctional personalities and circumstances, to evoke laughs in our unfunny, troubled world; and this cast and crew rises splendidly to his task.
Director Jessica Stone has based this version on Director Nicholas Martin’s Broadway production. In fact, Martin, former Huntington artistic director, was hired to direct this play, but died April 30, 2014. Theater organizers did the next best thing. They hired Stone, Martin’s devoted friend, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Martin Moran splendidly portrays quiet-spoken, closeted-gay uncle Vanya, who acts as mediator for his bickering sisters. Portraying Sonia, Marcia DeBonis is smashing (she throws coffee cups with abandon in opening scenes). She’s a constant scene stealer. In the wake of her attractive movie-star sister Masha’s visit, Sonia resents having spent 15 years caring for her dying, adoptive parents and being tied to the country. “I need a life,” she rants. “I’m a wild turkey!” When she gets her chance to cut loose at a nearby costume party, she’s incredulous about her success at getting attention. Like real-life kvetches we know, Sonia laments about losing her daily ritual to complain, and gingerly embraces her chance to get out of her rut. DeBonis is priceless during her self-effacing phone call with a gentleman, asking for a date.
She’s a hilarious foil to attractive Candy Buckley’s Masha, who’s paying the mortgage and bills at the manse, and reluctantly sees her youth slipping away. Buckley struts and speaks like an actress who’s never off-stage in her own mind, playing it to a T.
Masha ensures her youthful image - sort of - by traveling with and bedding her boy-toy, 29-year-old, narcissistic second-rate actor, Spike, (terrific Tyler Lansing Weaks). He flexes his muscles and strips to his underwear, revealing his sculpted body, causing palpitations in Vanya, never mind the ladies!
Pretty visitor-next-door, wannabe-actress Nina (Allison Layman) has caught Spike’s eye, much to Masha’s jealousy and chagrin, but Nina is more interested in gaining her idol Masha’s approval. Layman provides a sweet balance of prettiness, innocence, and eagerness, while spotlight stealer Haneefah Wood is hilarious as Cassandra, Sonia and Vanya’s prophetic, voodoo-raising cleaning lady.
The cast’s impeccable timing, comic innuendo and body language keeps the audience riveted to every scene. So does David Korins’ divine set and Mark Bennett’s original music and subtle sound effects.
Serious-minded Chekhov fans may argue Durang’s spoof is too silly, but remember --- Chekhov called his plays comedies, satires against the privileged, bored gentry. Durang makes sure his audiences laugh --- in spite of themselves.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour Tony Award-winning Broadway comedy, by Christopher Durang, appearing through Feb. 1, with the Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston: Fridays, at 8 p.m.; at 8 p.m.; Jan. 13,15,20,27, also Jan. 21,22,29, at 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 14,28, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 17,24,31, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Jan. 18,25, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. Check for related events. Tickets start at $25; discount rates for seniors, subscribers, BU community, students, military with valid ID, and 35 Below. Call 617-266-0800 or visit huntingtontheatreorg.