Review: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' at the Cleveland Play House

The idea of taking the despair of the Russian novelist Chekhov (represented by the first three character names in the title), and pushing it through a very American spin on comedy (represented by the last name in the title) is a dandy one. And playwright Christopher Durang is to be saluted (as he has been, with a Best Play Tony) for his clever conception.

But while there are laughs in V&S&M&S, it often feels like a play that thinks it’s funnier than it actually is. The characters each live inside their respective stereotypes until some rather unbelievable breakthroughs towards the end of this almost 2½ hour excursion. And it features one spotlight role that, not to put too fine a point on it, seems racially insensitive.

It all starts with promise, as sour Sonia and passive Vanya stare out at a lake from the patio of their well-appointed home in the cushy enclave of Bucks County, PA. They are siblings, each collapsed into his or her own futility, as they have spent their lives taking care of their aging parents. Dad and mom are gone now, but Vanya and Sonia are still stuck—without jobs and being supported in their comfy yet dreary lifestyle by sister Masha, a B-list movie star and gold-plated bitch.

Once Masha arrives, towing behind her a young male co-star named Spike (a ripped but rather bland Gregory Isaac Stone) who is clearly her boy-candy, things get a bit complicated—but not complicated enough. Sure, Spike starts to get a rise out of the semi-closeted Vanya, and Masha makes noises about selling the house out from under Sonia and Vanya. But these potentially promising diversions and/or threats never gain any heft.

Instead, Durang is focused on launching one-liners from the safe confines of the bunkers into which each of these characters have barricaded themselves. And yes, Durang certainly has a way with punch lines and comical scenarios—including a costume party they all attend (!), at which Masha plays Snow White, enlisting Vanya and others to be her dwarves. But it all seems a bit too easy in the absence of any real consequences, be they romantic, residential or otherwise.

As Sonia, Toni DiBuono is believably frumpy and she lands many of Durang’s zingers with style. And when she refuses to be one of Masha’s dwarves and costumes herself as Maggie Smith “on the way to the Oscars,” it’s a nice bit of one-upmanship.

John Scherer is not quite as focused as Vanya, so it’s hard to determine whether his passivity is depression, disinterest or something else. Unfortunately, he is at the center of the play’s most ineffective moment—when the plot stops and everyone decides to read a play written by Vanya. This surreal play, with visiting teen hottie Nina Maren Bush) playing a molecule, ends with a seemingly endless rant as Vanya goes off on modern technology and his fond memories of Ed Sullivan and the splendid culture of the 1950s. Huh?

In the role of Masha, Margaret Reed pushes the idea of a stuck-up Hollywood star a bit too hard, her artificiality feels like artifice, and she never really creates a character we can love to hate. At the end, her reach for an emotional denouement feels more ordained by the clock than the situation.

And speaking of revisiting ‘50s culture, there’s an African-American character: She’s a maid called Cassandra who constantly predicts doom, talks sassy, and uses a voodoo doll to inflict punishment on Masha. As Cassandra, Danielle Lee Greaves at least is not made to feast on a watermelon, but let’s not give them any ideas.

In sum, this play with so many conjunctions in its title never fully engages with its characters, It leaves us with lots of slickly manufactured, TV sitcom laughs. But there’s little of the tragic-comic relevance that Chekhov mastered.

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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