Arts & Culture

Theater review: PlayMakers' hilarious riff on Chekov is nigh-perfect

Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Cassandra and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Vanya in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Cassandra and Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Vanya in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” JON GARDINER

Reflecting on choices in life is a major occupation in Anton Chekhov's plays, such as "Uncle Vanya" and "The Seagull." Christopher Durang has his latest Broadway hit with a hilarious but loving riff on such musings in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." PlayMakers Repertory Company's staging gets everything delightfully right in a nigh-perfect production.

In present-day Bucks County, Penn., middle-aged Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia live in the family home, spending dull days bemoaning their wasted lives. Loony housekeeper Cassandra regularly pops in to give them dire warnings about impending troubles.

Movie star sister Masha pays all the bills, because Vanya and Sonia took care of their aging parents for years. Now Masha, at a low point, comes to visit, bringing along her boy-toy lover, Spike. She announces she's selling the house, reopening long-held acrimony among the three siblings.

Young Nina, an aspiring actress, drops by to meet her idol Masha, immediately clicking with Spike. Things go downhill after they all go to a costume party, where Sonia upstages Masha and Spike seems to pursue Nina.

Director Libby Appel beautifully balances the humor and humanity in Durang's characters. She gives the rather rambling script a comforting warmth, suitably enhanced by Michael J. Dempsey's lovely, multi-tiered set and Peter West's glowing lighting design.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell makes a lovable Vanya, quietly droll at first but building to a volcanic tirade about change at play's end. Julia Gibson's Sonia hilariously combines put-upon woe and bitterly aimed barbs. Julie Fishell turns in another tour de force as Masha, her self-absorbed preening hiding great insecurities underneath.

Christian Daly takes Spike's eager narcissism to the max, spending much of the play stripped down to nearly nothing, while keeping the character sympathetic. Arielle Yoder gives Nina an attractive freshness, her hopes still undimmed by life's stumbling blocks. Although as written, Cassandra is more farcical than the others, Kathryn Hunter-Williams enchants the audience with her stage-filling characterization.

Durang tends to let characters go on too long in the same vein but the results are consistently funny and endearing. Chekhov references abound for those in the know but unfamiliarity with that playwright's works will not prevent a most rewarding evening.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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