Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Studio Theatre Long Island by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Written by Christopher Durang
Directed by Jordan Hue
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
Reviewed 2/5/16  

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre (Princeton, New Jersey), in association with the Lincoln Center Theater. The play, originally a one-act, ran at the McCarter Theatre from September 7, 2012, to October 14, 2012. It opened Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on November 12, 2012 (after previews from October 25th) and ran until January 20, 2013. The show opened on Broadway on March 14, 2013 at the John Golden Theatre (after previews beginning on March 5th). The play closed on August 25, 2013, after 201 performances on Broadway. The play received six Tony Award nominations, and won the Tony Award for Best Play. 

The story revolves around three middle-aged siblings. Vanya (who is gay), and Sonia (who was adopted), live in their parents' Bucks County, Pennsylvania home, even after their parents died from Alzheimer's Disease. Masha, an aging actress, married five times, who is not earning the money she once did, returns home to attend a costume party at a house formally owned by Dorothy Parker, with Spike (Vlad) in tow. Spike's biggest claim to fame is that he nearly landed a part in Entourage 2. Masha and Spike have been dating for three months and Masha is insecure about whether she can keep the interest of this young, clearly oversexed, narcissistic stud, who appears to be developing an attraction for Nina, a beautiful young woman who is the niece of  their next door neighbor. Masha has been paying all the bills and giving Vanya and Sonia a monthly stipend, especially since they both stayed at home to take care of their elderly parents, professors who dabbled in community theater and named their children after Chekhov characters. Masha drops the news she can no longer afford to pay for their idle, sedentary lifestyles and intends to sell the family home, which even contains "a cherry orchard" of at least 10 trees. The only other character is a cleaning woman named Cassandra, who is into voodoo and goes around making dire prophecies that turn out to be remarkably accurate. In the end, Sonia gets asked out on a date. We also learn that Vanya has been secretly writing a play based on the life of a talking molecule after life on earth ends. Spike admits he is having a relationship with Masha's personal assistant. Masha tells Spike to leave and decides not to sell the house after all. In the end, the three siblings sit together on a wicker bench looking out over the pond waiting for a Blue Heron to appear while The Beatles's song, "Here Comes The Sun", plays in the background.

What is to be made of this play? Is it really a comedy? Perhaps it is a tragedy. The three central characters are full of self-delusions and self-pity. All have reached the stage of life where their options have narrowed considerably. Sonia has never really had a relationship and has no interest in getting a job or starting a career. She explains that one of the two most exciting moments of her day is getting Vanya his morning coffee. She would have a sexual and romantic relationship with Vanya if he were interested but we learn Vanya marches to the beat of a different drummer. The only problem is that he, too, has never done anything that would give him the prospect of meeting someone special. All he has done is to write a play in secret about the end of the world while harboring anger toward everyone and everything new. He screams at Spike after he returned a text message during an informal reading of his play, and rails against the modern world. He confesses he has no idea what Entourage 2 is, and longs for a simpler time. He criticizes Walt Disney for firing actor Tommy Kirk (after a mother complained to the studio that 22-year old Kirk had entered into a relationship with her 15-year-old son, who he met at a public pool). Perhaps Vanya identifies with the sexual attraction Tommy Kirk had to that teenage boy, which might explain why he is so uncomfortable when Spike strips down to his underwear in front of him. (As Masha says, "Spike knows what his audience wants.") In the end, Vanya confesses he "worries about the future and misses the past." Masha, reflecting on her own life, finally realizes after five failed marriages that, "The roots I do have are here with you two." Nina, who met an actress she admired, got invited to a wonderful party, and might have found an agent through Spike, is the little ray of sunshine in the play who says to Sonia, "You must always get your hopes up!"

While the play is uneven and not always funny in the traditional sense, there are a few humorous lines, such as when Masha returns from her costume party upset because even though she was dressed as Snow White, people at the party assumed she was Norma Desmond or perhaps even a Hummel figurine. Anne Marie Finnie was perfect as Masha bringing that character's egotist, selfish, jealous personality front and center, with each line delivered as a grand performance. Tom Brown excelled as the attractive, but dim-witted Spike. He still has a youthful enough body so no audience member cried out for him to put his clothes back on. Gary Tifeld, as Vanya, and Janine Innamorato-Haire, as Sonia, did a fine job portraying the depressed and dysfunctional stay-at-home provincials who have never really lived. They were both quite believable in their roles, as was Kate Keating, who was Cassandra. The best performance of the evening was by Nicole Intravia, a charismatic and talented actress, who played the perky and ambitious Nina. Perhaps all these characters, as well as the audience members, can benefit listening to the advice of Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who advised people on his television show, "to build your life on a strong foundation."

Jordan Hue deserves credit for his fine direction. He also provides insight on the play is his directorial note, which reads in part, as follows: "...the show is funny because of its tragedy, not in spite of it. Sonia's desperation for a better future and Vanya's wistful longing for the past create a high-tension wire on which life's changes, big, small, and absurd are given license to dance. Masha's fading star and last grasp at youth is painful and hilarious; Spike is a caricature of all that is wrong with the oversexed millennial culture and its obsession with fame. The other characters, including Cassandra, the prophetic house cleaner, and Nina, the young, aspiring actress next door raise the stakes by providing valuable perspective: the looming specter of the future, fraught with peril but fresh with hopefulness. Vanya, Sonia, and Masha may have lost their way somewhere in the woods. The ball was not all it was cracked up to be. The charming prince turned out to be a scoundrel. And yet they all strive to overcome, to find their way back together and home again. The prize in the clearing at the end of the path is not fortune or glory, but optimism." Here comes the sun!

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at Studio Theatre Long Island through Sunday, February 21, 2016. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased at https://www.studiotheatreli.com/ Don't miss this opportunity to see this excellent production of the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play. I guarantee it will make you feel much better about your own life!

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