Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you can’t join the parade.
Christopher Durang’s comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a Broadway hit currently onstage at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, has attracted enthusiastic support among artistic directors at regional theaters across the country. This is the second time I’ve seen this erratic romp, which received near-universal praise from New York critics. All I can say is that I must have been out of the room when they passed around the Kool-Aid. Don’t get me wrong. Some sequences in this show are undeniably funny. A substantial number of laughs you must attribute to Durang’s wit. But most of the credit goes to certain cast members who deliver inspired comic performances.
Durang apparently wrote the central role — a neurotic, past-her-prime movie star — for his friend and former classmate at the Yale School of Drama, Sigourney Weaver. The play consequently feels like a clubby academic exercise. For Durang, who writes like someone who never left graduate school, it’s all about scoring points with smug irony. The handsomely designed Rep production, staged by artistic director Eric Rosen, showcases some nice performances, although stylistically the actors never quite get on the same page. As the title suggests, Durang entertains himself by borrowing tropes, character names and themes from the plays of Anton Chekhov. Spotting the Chekhovian references in this piece might be a good parlor game, but the most successful comic moments have nothing to do with the great Russian dramatist.
We have three middle-aged siblings — Vanya, Sonia and Masha — who were named by their parents, academics with a taste for community theater, after Chekhov characters. Vanya and the adopted Sonia have stayed at the family home in Bucks County, Pa., where they cared for their elderly parents, while Masha was off making movies, earning buckets of money and supporting Vanya and Sonia with stipends.
Masha arrives unannounced with her boy toy, a studly young actor named Spike, who makes the acquaintance of a beautiful young neighbor named Nina. Add to the mix a cleaning woman named Cassandra, who is prone to visions and can sometimes predict the future, and you have a crazed, unpredictable assembly of farcical characters. The plot, such as it is, centers on Masha’s plan to sell the family home. Sonia and Vanya panic because they’ve never really acquired jobs or lives. Ultimately, the principal characters come to terms with their lot in life after a bit of personal growth.
Act 2 provides some of the liveliest passages as Vanya gathers people together for a reading of an experimental play he has written about floating molecules after the Earth no longer exists. There’s also an offstage costume party, which allows Masha to dress as Snow White while insisting that Vanya and Nina costume themselves as dwarfs.
Tom Aulino plays Vanya with a kind of thoughtful timidity, which makes Vanya’s eventual outburst about the fragmentation of popular culture all the more impressive. Barbara Walsh, as Sonia, scores with a nicely executed performance that walks a fine line between poignancy and heightened comedy. Mary Beth Fisher, as Masha, seems to try too hard in the early going but relaxes into a plausible portrayal as Masha is forced to confront her own weakness. Vanessa Severo chalks up yet another inspired comic performance as Cassandra and repeatedly threatens to steal the show. Emily Peterson plays Nina with an attractive quirkiness, and Zachary Andrews has some highly amusing moments as Spike, although he at times seems to struggle to find his balance. Scenic designer Donald Eastman contributes an impressive set representing the two-story house and takes advantage of the Spencer Theatre’s deep stage. Melissa Torchia seems to enjoy herself as she conjures the varied and sometimes ridiculous costumes. Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting casts a rich, warm glow on the action.
Some excellent work went into this production. It would have been nice to see the energies of the artists and craftspeople involved applied to a better play.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through April 6 at Spencer Theatre in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.