Sunday, August 25, 2013

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang

L - R Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce 

By Joe Straw

“We sat there, near the pond in rural New Jersey – Christine, her mother, and me – relaxing in our quest to observe nature, watching tadpoles and frogs, heads protruding the surface of the water, on this hot summer afternoon.

Chris, with her binoculars, spotted something and felt the need to pull up her pant legs and walk into the pond. She paused to see how a baby tree frog was doing and then she pulled it off the wall and observed its progress and took a moment for me to scrutinize.

I took it all in with squinting eyes, satisfied, turned my attention to the green algae, and listened to one particular frog whose voice clicked like the classrooms intercoms of the sixties.

And then a frog with a long tail crawled up on the ledge and stared at us.   He sat there with zombie like eyes and as we approached he was unaware of our presence. He didn’t blink. He didn’t look well.

“He doesn’t look well.” Chris said sadly and her mother agreed adding that he would probably be bird food in the near future. The blue heron would get him, “unless he’s sick” she said, “then he might not want to.”

We poked the frog a couple of times.  Chris threw some pond water on him and then our attention was diverted.   

A few moments later that same frog flipped over on its back, showing his white underside, shook his tiny legs a couple of times and died like a possum. But he wasn’t dead, only faking it for the time being and we found that surprisingly odd.

No one had a parasol this hot summer day but I got to thinking of that image that we were living and breathing a Chekhovian lifestyle.” – Narrator

The Golden Theatre – A Shubert Organization Theatre, Philip J. Smith, Chairman and Robert E. Wankel, President – presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang and directed by Nicholas Martin.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is my first Broadway play and one of the finest productions I have ever seen, bar none. The lady sitting in front of me thought I was laughing too much in the first act (she exchanged seats with her date) and crying too much in the second act.  But mostly, I was having a great time and I count this as one of the finest, exhilarating theatrical experiences of my life.  A play this much fun should not be legal and I was proud to lose my Broadway virginity on this particular night.

The setting is Bucks County, Pennsylvania in a traditional country home wonderfully designed by David Korins, the Scenic Designer.   And typical of a Chekhov play, two characters are introduced in the opening moments. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) wearing his night shirt, slippers, holding a cup of coffee, and keeping watch for the blue heron at the pond, is joined moments later by Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) in pajamas who is carrying a cup of coffee in one hand and sipping on a diet soda from the other.  Sonia is slightly put off that Vanya has already gotten his coffee.

“But I like bringing you coffee in the morning.” – Sonia

“Fine.  Here, take this cup and give me that one.” – Vanya

“All right…. Now I feel better.” – Sonia  

But as they watch from their morning room for the blue heron, there’s trouble brewing in paradise. Vanya says he likes the other cup of coffee better and a small Chekhovian battle takes root.

“I mean I have two pleasant moments every day in my f**king life, and one of them is bringing you coffee.” – Sonia

It’s not surprising that something is eating at Sonia.   She’s tells Vanya that she’s been having bad dreams about being 52 and unmarried.

“Were you dreaming in the documentary form?” – Vanya

Catching the root of the impalpable grayness of her life, Sonia wonders how this has happened. How did they get stuck living with each other, in this house, taking care of this home and their professor/actor parents who were losing their minds those long arduous years? Still they sit in the morning room speaking of their elegant mother and of a father who called his adopted daughter “his little artichoke”

Eyes focused, they look to the pond hoping to catch a sign of good luck.

“I hope the blue heron comes later.” – Sonia

“ I hope so too. It’s like a good omen.” – Vanya

“Of course, it eats frogs, so it’s not a good omen for them.” – Sonia

And like the thunderclap of an unexpected storm, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), the housekeeper, enters and brings warnings of impending doom to the household and the message of doom rolls off the tip of her tongue as she enters the house.

“Cassandra, I have asked you repeatedly to please just say “good morning.” All right?” – Vanya

But Cassandra can’t leave well enough alone and invokes the name of “Hootie Pie” as she warns them to beware.

Vanya and Sonia aren’t terribly concerned - making light of Hootie Pie - but Cassandra says they are in jeopardy of losing the house and she sees them walking to the poor house.  Sonia thinks someone will give them a ride.

“No, you will walk.” - Cassandra

But thinking back on what Cassandra has told them, the two suddenly become Chekhov characters with an unbearable sadness overcoming them.  They are sad and talk about losing their cherry orchard - well 10 or 12 trees.

Breaking the spell of sadness are cookies, and especially graham crackers that Sonia is so fond of that it invokes the name of their five-time divorced movie star sister, Masha (Julie White).

Sonia then remembers to tell Vanya that Masha will be there in about an hour just as her car pulls into the driveway. Vanya, a little perturbed at Sonia’s forgetfulness, runs upstairs to put on his pants.

Masha, with her 29 year-old aspiring actor boyfriend Spike (Creed Garnick), makes a grand entrance into the home she owns. She is every bit the movie star.

“Sweetest Vanya, dearest Sonia.  How I’ve missed you.  You both look the same. Older. Sadder.  But the same.  It’s wonderful to see you, Vanya.   Oh, and you too, Sonia.

Masha sends Spike out to the car to fetch her Snow White costume and tells them they are all invited to a costume party later that evening. 

After an exhausting run to the car, Spike sees the pond, strips to his underwear, and races to jump in but not before giving to his beloved a smooch and rustling Vanya’s hair.

“Did you tell him I’m gay?” – Vanya

“No. Why would I?  And are you gay?  I’m sorry, did we have some conversation I forgot?” - Masha

Egregiously ditsy, Masha wants her siblings to come to the party as her dwarfs an additament to her costume, Grumpy for Vanya and Dopey for Sonia. Neither one likes the idea.  Vanya is at least agreeable to going as Doc, but Sonia will only come as the beautiful evil queen before she becomes ugly.

“Oh I have an idea.  Sonia, do you want to go as the wicked witch with the wart on her nose?” - Masha

In the meantime, Spike is down by the pond and speaking to a young nymph, Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager), and Masha is having a hard time with that.  

Christopher Durang has written a magnificent play with modern day characters filled with various peculiarities and eccentricities going about the disorderly formality of their lives.  But not lost in the metal suffering of the characters is the humanitarian passion about love, respect, family, and caring for one another.  This is Durang’s finest work.  

There are similarities in Durang’s play and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Sonia and Vanya are characters from Uncle Vanya. Each eccentric character hates his or her life (except for all the enticing parts and little pleasures of life).  They wake up one day, not knowing where the time has gone, and find they are at risk of losing their home.

Durang has his characters at a certain age where everyone has lived long enough to have a strong perspective on his or her view of life. And no one hems or haws anymore; they get right to the point. This all makes for very strong relationships, funny situations, and exciting conflict.  And the phone call in the second act is something I will never forget.  

They are all delightful characters with a strong purpose.

David Hyde Pierce plays Vanya who tries his hardest to keep the peace between siblings and live out his life on the farm as a gay man for the remainder of his life without major distractions complicating his life. Unfortunately, he has a price to pay for wishing that on himself during the course of two tumultuous days of the play. Pierce is exceptional in the role.

L - R Julie White, Kristine Nielsen

Kristine Nielsen is Sonia and she does things I’ve never seen an actor do in my entire life. And those “things” are part of the whole package that makeup the entire character, the voice, the physical life, the comic timing, the work and craft are not to be believed.  And then there is the phone call in the second act when a hush came over the entire audience and near the end men and women openly wept. People talk about the emotional connection one gets at the theatre and this was an exceptional moment in the play. Nielsen is a one of the greatest American actors working on our stage today.  

Julie White is Masha and she is also one incredible actress. Masha is one wacky chick living her entire life as though she were on a set, being pampered, and adored by every male with a pulse.  But she does not see the signs or listens to the right people and it takes every bit of pot banging to ensure she is being noticed. White is extremely funny, slightly confused in character, and very sharp all at the same time. Masha also has a special silent moment on stage, which brought the house down. All in all, White's performance is wonderful.

Shalita Grant plays Cassandra the person who picks up the destroyed fragments of other people lives.  Seemingly, she is the housekeeper.  She is also a psychic who can see into the near future with incredible clarity if only people would believe her. She also has a voodoo doll that she uses to great affect. But most of all, she loves the people she works for and would do anything to keep her job. One can’t help but laugh out loud at her antics.

Creed Garnick was Spike on this particular night, the half naked boyfriend to Masha, and did a fine job. But what I particularly nice was his relationship to the cast of characters on stage. Each relationship  differed yet all were saucy.

Liesel Allen Yeager is Nina a young actress with a lot on the ball.  She works her way into the good graces of all the characters but I wonder if her relationship with Spike could have been a little stronger. Yeager was quite good and very believable.

Other performers that I did not see on this particular night are Billy Magnussen, Linda Marie Larson, Amelia McClain, Keith Reddin, and Heather Alicia Simms.

Nicholas Martin, the Director, has done a marvelous and masterful job.  The play pushes all the right buttons and the actors are specific in their choices and movements on stage. There are a lot of moments that you take home with you, that stay with you. This was a night of theatre that I will never forget.

Other members of the fabulous crew are:
Emily Rebholz – Costumes
Justin Townsend – Lighting
Mark Bennett – Original Music and Sound
Daniel Swee – Casting Director
Leah J. Loukas – Wig Designer
Denise Yaney – Production Stage Manager
M.A. Howard – Assistant Stage Manager

The Producers are:
Joey Parnes
Larry Hirschhorn
Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino
Martin Platt
David Elliott
Pat Flicker Addiss
Catherine Adler
John O’Boyle
Joshua Goodman
Jamie deRoy
Richard Winkler
Cricket Hooper Jiranek
Michael Palitz
Mark S. Golub and David S.Golub
Radio Mouse Entertainment
Shadowcatcher Entertainment
Mary Cossette
Barbara Manocherian
Megan Savage
Meredith Lynsey Schade
Hugh Hysell
Richard Jordan
Cheryl Wiesenfeld
Ron Simons
John Johnson

Run! Run! Run!  It’s playing on Broadway now but when it comes to Los Angeles grab your seats.

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