Let’s call it what it is: generational. Whether you will like Christopher Durang’s Chekhovian riff Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike probably depends largely on whether you liked Aaron Posner’s Chekhovian riff Stupid Fucking Bird. If you liked Bird, you may not be that enthralled with Vanya, and vice versa. Put another way, Bird captures a Gen X sensibility, whereas Vanya is more for your Boomer mother-in-law.
Now consider the fact that it is Posner directing Arena’s production of Durang’s Vanya. Does oil mix with water?
Well, on the one hand, there is the logic of asking Posner, based on his obvious passion for pulling Chekov into a 21st century mindset. On the other, one can’t help but wonder how Posner’s sensibility — the irreverent energy, ruthless angst, and scorching sense of humor –- would ever sit comfortably behind Durang’s very different style, a style that is unabashedly sitcommy when it’s not feeling like the director’s cut of an especially gloomy Prairie Home Companion?
But mostly it does, and this is due to Posner’s obvious skill as a director. If there is the teeniest, tiniest of unevenness evidencing a few Posner bubbles in the Durang oil, it’s likely only a Bird lover will notice.
For most, this will be an evening of easy entertainment. If you like reliable jokes, reliable life lessons, tisking along with your neighbors to bad character behavior, and joining approving claps for middle-aged girl-power, you’ll be in your element. For those who like a wistful moment or two, there are times when Durang approaches, albeit briefly and lightly, some genuine grief at life’s unforgiving passage.
Whether funny or sad, most of these moments center around Vanya and Sonia, a middle-aged brother and (adopted) sister who have devoted much of their later adult lives to caring for recently-departed parents. Now their time is their own and they are reluctantly faced with uncertain futures as well as the tail-ends of questionable life choices. When their film-star sister Masha swoops in for an unscheduled visit to the ancestral home, it is clear that she, too, is in the throes of an angst, some of which accompanies her in the form of a much younger boyfriend, Spike. As the siblings begin to take refuge in old battles and teeter on the verge of new ones, the irreverent housekeeper Cassandra interjects with warnings of impending doom and a young visitor further stirs the pot.
Though Sonia, who presents as naïve, is a compelling instigator, it is Vanya who emerges as Durang’s spiritual touchstone. Eric Hissom inhabits this quietly sardonic and rather long-suffering individual with the ideal blend of self-possession and self-repression. He is one of the long-term unfulfilled, having remained single (and apparently celibate) for years. But unlike Sonia, this is not what bothers his soul.
What does leads to Vanya’s climactic cri de coeur is Durang’s most interesting contemplation. Without ruining Vanya’s moment, he suggests that we have all lost something of our place in the world in having gained access to every corner of it, instantly and without limit. Hissom captures this idea with an outrage and grief worthy of a Posner play –- which is saying something.
If Vanya is the play’s conscience, Sonia is its heart –- even if it’s rather a corny one. Though she has something of a coming-of-middle-age that will get the Red Hat Society inductees and emeriti alternately seat-dancing and getting misty-eyed, there is nevertheless just a bit more to Sonia than her crowd-pleasing. She may be flaky but Durang gives her an occasionally canny and sardonic eye and voice. This balance between the artless and the activated is not an easy one and Sherri L. Edelen gets it right, with a kind of defiant charisma that goes a long way in mitigating the hokier moments.
Stuck with Masha, the least-dimensional sibling, Grace Gonglewski delivers the strutting goods of this once self-assured woman, but can make little else of Masha’s uninspired revelations. Durang offers virtually nothing of what has made this woman who she is — she’s more the issuer of pronouncements than a real woman with credible strengths and vulnerabilities. Thus, the hard edge Gonglewski gives her never convincingly thaws.
Always a stand out, Jessica Frances Dukes knocks it out of the park with her Cassandra, inflating the flatter humor and defying the corn to keep her as compelling as she is funny as she is memorable. As for the two youngsters of the piece, Rachel Esther Tate keeps Nina, the young visitor who pleases and annoys the siblings in equal measure, convincingly guileless though she presents as too young to be a genuine sexual threat. Jefferson Farber plays his comedic foil Spike to Durang’s specs, which could have been a lot funnier, sadder and subversive.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike () runs to May 3rd at Arena Stage — Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
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