You need not be well-versed in the work of the venerable Anton Chekhov to appreciate Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Even if you don’t know a cherry orchard from a neighborhood playground, you’ll enjoy the madcap antics of Durang’s delightfully dysfunctional characters. So it’s by and large over the top comedy, with sight gags and shameless Chekhov allusions to spare. But it’s easy to see why this show, now on stage at the Old Globe directed by Jessica Stone, was Tony nominated on Broadway. Besides, there’s just enough heart in the script – especially in the case of wallflower Sonia (Marcia DeBonis) – to ensure that the broadly behaving characters are well-rounded ones. Well, maybe not Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks), who’s supposed to be shallow, but what he does during a striptease with the belt of his trousers makes up for his shallowness.
The story finds brother and adopted sister Vanya (Martin Moran) and Sonia (DeBonis) living contentedly (though they bicker a lot) in the peaceful Bucks County, Pennsylvania home owned by their sister Masha (Candy Buckley), who’s an extremely neurotic actress – and can she ever emote. When Masha and her boytoy, Spike, show up the tirades and recriminations and verbal barbs (all played for laughs) gets ramped up and all peacefulness is gone. The question of whether Masha will sell the house that has been her sibs’ only home is a key plot point, but it’s not really what the play is about. It sounds corny but it is ultimately about family.
Stone directs these four (along with Haneefah Wood, who has a blast overplaying the future-forecasting cleaning woman, Cassandra) with a deft hand. Even at the play’s most outrageous moments – and there are many of them – VSM&S never digresses into slapstick. Buckley just about rules the stage as Masha, as she should, and DeBonis brings keen sympathy to Sonia’s lot in life. And Moran’s Act 2 appreciation for the simpler time that was the ‘50s is breathless.
It all unfolds on a sumptuous set by David Korins. The house and environs are the kind you wouldn’t mind settling into yourself. Minus the family chaos. Or maybe you’d like the family chaos because it reminds you of your own family.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.