Russian literature and comedy aren’t typical partners on the stage, but after hitting it big on Broadway, Christopher Durang’s Chekov-inspired comedy comes to the Guthrie to make us ponder the sweeping challenges of life—and also laugh at them.
Eccentric siblings Vanya and Sonia (the grown children of literature professors) live a life of quiet isolation in their family’s old country home, but things get shaken up a little when Masha, their glamorous movie-star sister, arrives for a visit with her latest boy toy, Spike, in tow.
Suzanne Warmanen’s Sonia is at first annoying, speaking with deliberated and almost childlike simplicity and throwing tantrums, but what else would one expect from a character who has never moved away from home, and has never quite grown up? Charles Janasz’s Vanya is more distinguished and reserved in his manner, but still somewhat aimless and too nostalgic for the past to move on.
Although Vanya and Sonia are sufficiently strange on their own, Masha’s narcissism and jealousy make her anything but the straight man here. Actress Candy Buckley brings just enough whiny insensibility to the character to walk the line between grating and endearing. She is deeply possessive of Spike—a young and somewhat meat-headed actor trying to make it in Hollywood—who sometimes seems more like an unruly puppy that she has to control than her boyfriend. The slightest excuse to remove any clothing and expose his sculpted physique makes Spike happy, and Joshua James Campbell certainly obliges on that front.
This loud intrusion into their routine does not sit well with Vanya and Sonia, especially when they find out that Masha, who supports them financially, has come to sell their house.
The characters clash, come together again, snipe, prod, and tease to hilarious comedic effect, with even some visual humor thrown in via a fabulous costume party that Masha convinces everyone to attend—with several attendees dressed as characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Not to be forgotten, Vanya and Sonia’s mysterious housekeeper Cassandra (Isabell Monk O’Connor), keeps the audience laughing with bizarre predictions of the future, while the innocent and dreamy-eyed neighbor Nina (Ali Rose Dachis) prances through the scenes, unwittingly stepping on Masha’s toes.
Rife with references to classic Chekov plays—including an impossibly long and passionate rant about the good old days from Vanya—knowledge of Russian literature is not a prerequisite to enjoy this zany and somewhat risqué show. Director by Joel Sass helms a production that makes the interplay between these unlikely characters seem like a circus in which each act delivers more delight than the last. Although a few scenes drag, each interruption provides a new cascade of ridiculousness to refresh the story.
The set design by Todd Rosenthal makes the serenity of the family home come to life—from the lofted interior of the house (complete with a mounted deer’s head on the staircase) to a soft green lawn sloping from a side porch and off the front of the stage—one can nearly see a blue heron floating on the pond.
As the characters look out on the countryside at the end of the play, perhaps just a few steps closer to solving their problems, the overwhelming message is that they’ve just begun learning to find contentedness in the here and now. We can only imagine the future antics and discoveries of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike once the curtain has fallen.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through August 31 at the Guthrie.