“Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike,” by Christopher Durang, won the 2013 Tony-award for best play and enjoys its first local production at Tipping Point Theatre in Northville. As you’ve probably guessed by the title, it leans heavily into the Chekhov tradition. As you may not have guessed, it leans hard enough to push Chekhov right over the edge and into the world of outrageous dark comedy.
Russian plays in general, and Chekhov’s in particular, are not known for their hilarious banter or whacky characters – something Durang delivers with panache. However, Durang’s characters do borrow much from Chekhov – their names, for example. Siblings Vanya, Sonia and Masha were named by their parents after favorite Chekhovian characters. As in the Cherry Orchard, two siblings – Vanya and Sonia (adopted) have stayed home to care for their senile, now deceased parents and suddenly find themselves with nothing to show for it but middle-aged angst. Meanwhile, Masha has enjoyed a fabulous career in Hollywood, has paid all the family bills, and now holds the deed to the family estate. Fans of “The Cherry Orchard” will see where this is going.
“Vanya” is directed by James R. Kuhl, Tipping Point Theatre’s Artistic Director, who finds the right balance for making us laugh at, but still care about, his characters. “The humor, which is very sharp and witty, is based in the characters and word play. I think it is a more elegant type of comedy. The dialogue is smart and expertly constructed,” says Kuhl. “It riffs off the themes of Anton Chekhov but also stands on its own, meaning you don’t need to know Chekhov and you can still have a rip roaring time. That is the beauty of it.”
Perhaps the best device Durang borrows from Chekhov is those long, expositional, introspective monologues that reveal so much about the psyche of the characters. Of course, in Durang’s hands, these become hysterically funny. John Seibert, who plays the emotionally restrained Vanya, has an especially fine moment in which he breaks into a long-winded rant that starts by attacking global warming and degenerates into a defense of the moral superiority of dial phones, lickable postage stamps, and the televised teachings of everyone from Señor Wences to the Venerable Bishop Sheen.
This generous script, and Kuhl’s adroit direction, give everyone their moment in the spotlight. Vanya’s adopted sister Sonia is played by Seibert’s real-world wife Terry Heck, and she radiates a dry acerbity, mellowed by honest familial affection, that makes us cheer for this tortured soul to finally one-up her more glamorous sister, Masha.
Cassandra, the aptly named housekeeper and clairvoyant, is fully channeled by Sonja Marquis, who makes a splashy entrance screaming dire prophesy in a language that seems a mash-up of Sophocles and “The View.” The first to realize that Masha plans to sell the family home, she is determined to use her psychic gifts to help Vanya and Sonia – and we lover her for trying.
Masha, the star of a successful series of horror films, is played by Janet Maylie with just the right tone and decibel level to deliberately upstage everyone else. Every family has a Masha, and Maylie nails the part. She believes that by acknowledging her own self-absorption it is somehow acceptable – a notion affirmed by her resentful but compliant siblings.
In a surprise appearance back at the homestead, Masha brings new boy-toy “Spike”– an actor whose claim to fame is physical beauty and “almost” getting a part in a cheesy cable show. Brian Thibault’s Spike is 6-feet tall and 1-inch deep, but with a youthful ingenuousness that makes us forgive his many foibles.
Spike, who seems to be forever tearing off his clothes and parading about in underwear, has run off for a dip in the pond, only to discover Nina. She is a winsome young aspiring actress played by Tara Tomcsik who looks and sounds like the duplicitous Hollywood blonde but is actually sweet, well-read and wise beyond her years. Masha the diva goes on the defensive, and the delicate family balance teeters toward disaster.
Fortunately (minor spoiler alert), this play does not end with the sounds of a single off-stage gunshot, but with the lovely strains of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
Director is James R. Kuhl is supported by a top-drawer production team that includes: Resident Stage Manager – Tracy L. Spada, Scenic Designer – Monika Essen, Lighting Designer – Alex Gay, Costume Designer – Shelby Newport, Properties Designer – Ryan Fisher, and Sound Designer – Quintessa Gallinat.
“Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike” runs through October 19, 2014 with 8 p.m. shows Thursdays through Saturdays and matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. A special matinee performance has been added on Wednesday, October 8 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $32 for adults and $27 to $30 for students and senior citizens and are available by calling the box office at (248) 347-0003.The Tipping Point Theatre is located at 361. E. Cady St. in Northville.