PlayMakers Repertory Company opens its 2014-15 season with the lively comedy by Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. According to the playwright, the Tony Award-winning play, though inspired by the works of Chekhov, is a thoroughly modern play of Durang’s own design. It is set in modern-day Pennsylvania Dutch country, the locale of Durang’s own home, and the premise is pure Durang.
PlayMakers has assembled a remarkable team to create Vanya and…, most notably the director for the work, Libby Appel, who among her many talents is a Chekhovian scholar, having translated many of the Russian’s plays into English. By her own admission, Appel didn’t get the play on her first read; it took a second reading for her to learn to love the play. While filled with Chekhovian references, the play is a modern-day whirlwind, and not in any way a Chekhovian comedy. Nevertheless, those patrons familiar with these references will get an added level of enjoyment.
Appel is joined by scenic designer Michael J. Dempsey, who gives us a beautiful Bucks County stone cottage, complete with the requisite birch tree. The play is set in August, so the day room is awash with light, and the doors are open to the countryside overlooking the pond. As the play opens, Vanya (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Sonia (Julia Gibson), brother and sister and the two residents of the house, are settling into the dayroom for their morning coffee. As the two discuss their situation, they are interrupted by their volatile housekeeper Cassandra (Kathryn Hunter-Williams), who assails them with doom and gloom – as would her Greek tragedy namesake. Her “bewares” seem nonsensical to the siblings until Sonia is reminded that she neglected to tell Vanya that their sister Masha (Julie Fishell) is coming for a visit. She arrives today.
When Masha arrives, she has in tow her boy-toy, Spike (Christian Daly), who is an actor like Masha. Spike, due to the heat of the day, immediately strips to his underwear and goes for a dip in the pond. While he is there, he is met by the niece of their next-door-neighbor, Nina (Arielle Yoder), who has come over to introduce herself.
After a good many Durangian shenanigans, Masha announces that she is there in order to go to a costume party at a neighbor’s house. She has brought Spike as her Prince Charming, for she intends to go as Snow White – the Disney version. She persuaded the hostess to also invite Sonia and Vanya, and she has brought costumes for them both: a pair from the seven dwarfs, Doc and Dopey. Sonia refuses to go as Dopey; she says if she must go as a character from Snow White, she will go as the beautiful Wicked Queen. Because Spike has already extended an invitation to Nina to accompany them, and she has no costume, Masha offers Dopey, and by the end of Act I all five of the costumed group are off to the party.
The play was wickedly funny and laden with wit. Gibson, as Sonia, was priceless as the forlorn, put-upon sibling, who refers to herself as “a wild turkey,” who roosts in trees but cannot but fall out of them. Gibson handled Sonia with real passion, and a deft turn as Sonia comes out of her shell at the party. Cornell’s Vanya also had a real change, from the mild-mannered, almost not-there Vanya of Act I, to the playwright Vanya of Act II, who writes a play inspired by the one written in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Nina coerces Vanya to let her read the play to the group, and Vanya reluctantly agrees. When Spike interrupts the reading by attending to his cell phone, Vanya seems to go berserk, and regales the group with a diatribe of pent-up emotion that blows Spike’s mind and rallies Masha to his cause. It is a monologue that can run away with an inexperienced actor; Cornell handled it beautifully.
Julie Fishell gave an inspired performance as Masha, the larger-than-life actress who made her mark as the lead of SexyKiller, a movie that spawned four sequels. Fishell struck just the right note as the over-the-top Masha who learns her lessons well when her world seems to fall apart.
Arielle Yoder gave a sparkling performance as Nina, the young ingénue who is the epitome of guileless good humor. She always wears a smile, is smitten by the man she calls Uncle Vanya, and is completely unaware of the consternation she causes Masha at the notion that she might take Spike away from the actress. It never enters her mind. Yoder’s Nina was completely without any affectation and she was the perfect straight man for all the others.
But for my money, the funniest of them all was Hunter-Williams as Cassandra. The actress gave us 110% as the woman who is clairvoyant, who foresees all the pitfalls of the play, and who cannot but deliver her doom and gloom in affected tones, generating alarm and consternation at her seemingly obscure predictions. In Act II Cassandra returns to the house unannounced and proceeds to vex Masha with voodoo; it was a priceless sequence and the most hilarious bit in the whole play.
PlayMakers has assembled a remarkable team that has brought a funny but difficult play to a sparkling reality. The wit is sharp and quick and the characters are well fleshed out and co-mingle beautifully. Even if you are not an aficionado of Chekhov, you will enjoy the unencumbered hijinx of this play. Those of us who are familiar with Chekhov have that much more of an opportunity to laugh along with this cast, who know and understand every reference. The work is presented on a set that is real, precise, and makes the viewer long for a home like this one. With a sound design that fills us with a sense of well-being and an ensemble cast that fires on all cylinders, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a treat for all the senses, and a fine flagship to launch the 2014-15 season.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through Sunday, October 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.