REVIEW: Playwright Christopher Durang puts Chekhov in a blender, with a deliciously funny result.
Masha, Masha, Masha.
It is always about Masha, the leggy, glamorous, successful sister. She has friends, money, fame and complete power over everyone else in Christopher Durang’s deliciously arch play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
At the Guthrie Theater on Friday night, Candy Buckley marched her Masha onstage, broke off pieces of scenery and started to feast. A sinewy, faded beauty with stringy arms and legs like stilts, this smart, self-aware cat speaks in a whiskey-drenched voice and grinds her word endings like she’s chewing gristle off a steak.
If you are not up for this exaggerated style, Buckley’s performance might feel like murder. I urge you to just go along with it. She’s so mean, so easy and comfortable as she puts down her sister, Sonia, and her brother, Vanya. She’s phony to the bone and she knows it.
But enough about Masha. Durang’s play satisfies every Chekhov sweet tooth you might have. It is about the fear of change, the gap between generations, the comfort of sloth and the pomposity of artificial wealth. And beneath it all, that driving desire among its characters to live — to really live. For extra fun, he nods to the Greeks, with Cassandra (a clattering, confident Isabell Monk O’Connor) belching out prophecies that may or may not come true.
Dramatically, Durang also checks every box on his Chekhov list: Does Vanya throw a tirade? Is the ownership of the property at stake? Does Masha constantly have her eye on Moscow (Hollywood)? Is Masha bad in romance? Is Sonia a lump on a log? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. It’s all here, timeless and still urgent, twisted with Durang’s perfect cheek.
Fans of director Joel Sass will note none of the cool, cinematic stage tricks he does so well. Good for that, because this play reminds us how well Sass investigates language, character, intent, human observation — the stuff Chekhov demands. He builds this play with an overall eye for authenticity juxtaposed with a commitment to the absurd.
Masha’s parents were professors, active in community theater, and they named the children for Chekhov characters. Sonia (a stunted and frustrated bag of humanity in Suzanne Warmanen’s hands) and Vanya (Charles Janasz) have stayed home all their lives, in this woodsy cottage (set by Todd Rosenthal) to care for their ailing parents. In the surroundings, unseen by us but most alive in Sonia and Vanya’s world, are blue herons, a pond, wild turkeys and a stand of cherry trees that may or may not be an orchard.
Masha, who would refuse to admit her age (50ish), has bankrolled these slackers with cash earned in the Hollywood fleshpots, becoming the iconic “Sexy Kitten.” She knows better than anyone that she has sold out, but she can’t hate herself. No, not when she is glorious and fabulous enough to attract the transient attentions of Spike, a thumping piece of young, muscled flesh.
Joshua James Campbell has a body that makes him instantly and uniquely fit to play Spike. Reduced to brief underwear for much of his time on stage, he lets his physique do the talking. As beautiful as his body is, his mind is an empty attic and his soul self-absorbed.
Masha has come back to the family home to attend a costume party and drop some news on her siblings. The party is a great gift to costumer Ilona Somogyi, who gets to drape Buckley’s coat-hanger shoulders with a perfect replica of Snow White’s dress.
Of course what would Chekhov be without Nina, the aspiring actor from “The Seagull”? Here, she is a naif, visiting relatives down the road and agog at the chance to meet Masha. Ali Rose Dachis’s Nina is a vision of pure and unspoiled youth and innocence. In one of Durang’s delicious winks to Chekhov, Nina adores Vanya — “like an uncle.” Would he mind if she called him …?
Vanya’s psychological explosion comes at the expense of Spike and the intrusions of modern technology. The screed is a thing of beauty, the flimsy and meek Janasz getting on his hind legs and scorching the air against the gods of change. Oh, this modern age and its baggage of Twitter and Facebook and cellphones and what they call “social media.”
“Time marches on, dude,” Spike parries in defense, and this sets Vanya into a full-throated jeremiad about the lost innocence of a time defined by “Old Yeller” and the constancy of “Ozzie and Harriet” (“Yes, it was a stupid show, but it was calming”). What a treat to see Janasz again on the Guthrie stage. He’s so light on his feet and understated, amused by life but fierce in holding on to what he has.
Stay with this show (it can test your patience at times) because as happens with good plays, things come together in a satisfying way. Will everything work out? As Sonia reminds us: there is hope. There is always hope.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299