REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Although I am not as familiar with the plays of Anton Chekhov as some, Christopher Durang’s play, Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, doesn’t require a pop quiz of Chekhovian references in order for one to enjoy the show. This character study into the lives of three squabbling, middle-aged siblings has enough humor and poignancy in it so you don’t have to have your SparkNotes handy to enjoy it. The play, produced by Leslie Nichols and directed by Fred Helsel, plays at the Santa Paula Theater Center through August 16.
The names of the four major characters, as well as many of the references in the script, are drawn from various Chekhov plays. As Durang described it, “I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender.” The story focuses on Vanya and Sonia, who live in the house they grew up, in which they took care of their aging parents until they died. Now in their fifties, Vanya and Sonia realize they have no lives outside of their pleasant but plain little existence. Their chief source of irritation is their younger sibling Masha, a five-time divorcee who is a world-renowned film star. Vanya and Sonia are jobless, but live on money given to them by Masha, who owns their parents’ house, to pay the rent and living expenses. In the story, Masha visits Vanya and Sonia, with her boyfriend du jour Spike, who is twelve years younger than she, in tow, and tells them that she is thinking of selling their home.
At the outset, Vanya and Sonia, played respectively by Ray Mastrovito and Peggy Steketee, are reminiscent of radio’s Bickersons; they are constantly sniping at one another about immaterial, inconsequential things, such as how Vanya likes his coffee. (They even sound like Don Ameche and Frances Langford, who played the battling Bickersons). Mastrovito is wonderful as the repressed Vanya, an even-tempered gay man who is barely peeking out of the closet. Steketee plays Sonia, who was adopted into the family, as a lonely-hearts spinster who views herself as unwanted, unloved, and unwilling to do anything about it (“I haven’t lived!” she cries in self-realized anguish.)
Aileen-Marie Scott plays Masha, insufferable and bursting with ego and self-importance. Now on the downslope of her career, Masha has turned her life into a performance in itself, playing a person who thinks she’s still at the pinnacle of her popularity. Her mood brightens, however, when Nina, a cute, young would-be actress who lives next door, is starstruck upon meeting her, but Masha becomes jealous when her vacuous boy-toy Spike appears to pay more attention to Nina than to her. The group decides to attend a costume party, with Masha, dressed as Snow White, talking the others into being her “supporting cast” by playing the Seven Dwarfs.
Sonia uses the costume party to become someone else – in this case, Snow White’s Wicked Queen (“as played by Maggie Smith”) and adopts a completely different persona – confident, world-wise, and conversant. The party becomes a transforming event for Sonia, who begins to discover that she is really a very nice person and able to attract interested men. Thanks to Steketee’s touching and nuanced performance, we get to know Sonia, and the more we know her, the more we like her. At the party, she meets a man dressed as Sam Spade, who ends up calling her for a date the next day. When she reluctantly takes the phone call, we watch as her Sonia self and her Maggie Smith self battle with one another, shaking and quivering as she finally decides to take a chance and venture out into the social world. Steketee’s work in this scene, which is done alone on the stage, is magnificent acting, showing the turmoil inside Sonia’s mind as she decides to take the plunge and leave her safe but risk-averse existence.
Mastrovito’s Vanya has his own character-baring moment as well. As he is reading aloud from a play he has written, he notices that Spike is preoccupied with his cell phone. This triggers his tirade against contemporary societal manners. In an extended monolog, he yearns for the “good old days” of the 1950s, when life was simpler. There were only seven television channels, people licked postage stamps instead of sending emails, and most were satisfied by a comfort-food culture of Perry Como, Scrabble, Davy Crockett, and Howdy-Doody (“We watched puppets”). He bemoans the “loss of shared memories” and we feel for him, especially audience members also of an age to remember these icons of the Eisenhower era. From his current perspective, however, Vanya understands the shiny varnish of those days. There were no real “adventures” in the humdrum Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, but this does not dissuade his nostalgia for the innocence and warmth of those years. Mastrovito’s performance of Vanya’s monolog is, like Steketee’s phone call, masterful, and one of the highlights of the play.
Aileen-Marie Scott is terrific as the self-absorbed Masha, whose veneer of arrogance is stripped away after listening to Vanya’s heartfelt yearning for the past. Andrew Garrett plays Spike almost as an alien from outer space who no one is able to relate to. Bolstered by a recent audition in which he almost gets cast in an obscure reality show, Spike is as overbearing as Masha. But even the impressionable, naive Nina sees through his transparent, substance-less personality.
Rachel Addington is delightful as the sexy but innocent girl-next-door, whose sweet nature is revealed when she “adopts” Vanya as her surrogate uncle. Francine Daniels has a plum role as Vanya and Sonia’s clairvoyant housekeeper, Cassandra, whose name comes from a seeress from Greek mythology, adding a touch of the supernatural to the story.
Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is a marvelous character study of flawed, but eminently likable people (except for Spike, of course!). Seth Kamenow’s set and lighting design enhance the effectiveness of the story while Barbara Pedziwiatr’s costumes, especially the ones worn by the cast at the party, are excellent.
Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike plays through August 16 at the Santa Paula Theater Center. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.