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Review: Uptown Players’ ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

Vanya Show stills editThis is funny? Why, yes, it is. Very funny. Diana Sheehan, Bob Hess and Wendy Welch in Uptown Players’ superb Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. All photo credits: Mike Morgan

Many of us became Christopher Durang fans as long ago as 1981, when his incendiary Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You torched our traditional Catholic upbringings with a pure and hilarious savagery. Consequently, for many long-time admirers, Durang’s winning the Tony Award for best play last year for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was a long-awaited, well-deserved recognition of our most sharp-witted stage satirist. The fact that Durang — with his literary barbs, his theater in-jokes, his deadpan ghoulishness, his general off-Broadway camp absurdism — the fact that Durang actually had a hit on Broadway still seems … odd. Or just wonderfully unexpected.

Admittedly, the success of V&S&M&S was partly assured by the star draws of David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver in the cast. Still, consider: When added together, the box-office runs of all four of Durang’s previous Broadway efforts barely eked out two months. That’s not enough to cover the liquor bill for the opening-night parties.

So finally getting to see V&S&M&S in Dallas in a nearly note-perfect regional premiere from Uptown Players has only added to that glow of long-delayed pleasure. The play is Durang’s comic update and mash-up of Anton Chekhov’s classics. We have the family estate, this time in the Pennsylvania countryside, and at the moment, it’s inhabited by adult siblings Vanya and Sonia. The two have settled into the cozy routines of unmarried, middle-aged decline: They watch the blue heron come to the pond while they sip coffee in the morning.

And then the mousy Masha smashes her cup in frustration and wails about her passed-by, sexless existence. Truth be told, Vanya himself feels left behind and unhappy, particularly as he’s gay and closeted.

The siblings’ feelings of angst and failure get revved up with the return of their successful sister Masha, who abandoned the classical theater to cash in with a Hollywood serial-killer film franchise. Inevitably, Masha brings along a great deal of high drama, frantic narcissism and a grinning young boy toy named Spike. The tensions grow worse when Masha ‘belittles’ her siblings. She insists, for instance, that for a costume party, everyone must dress to suit her own get-up as Snow White. It’ll only work, she explains, as a theme costume. So they must play the Dwarfs.

And, oh yes, Masha has decided to stop footing the bills for her siblings. She’s going to sell their house.

In all this, it’s easy enough to spot the wasted lives of the typical Chekhov characters. There’s also the bird-symbol and the older actress manipulating people from The Seagull as well as the threatened loss of the family home in The Cherry Orchard — if, that is, as several characters wonder, the family’s nine or ten trees actually constitute an ‘orchard.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need to know any of this — or even to have seen any Chekhov — to enjoy V&S&M&S. Such knowledge deepens the experience, of course, particularly because stage and film jokes are staples of Durang’s world. But the zanily dysfunctional family trapped together out in the country has been a set-up for any number of plays, films and sitcoms.

Put another way: Durang’s Broadway success has come for what certainly ranks as one of his comfiest, least outrageous, least ferocious — basically, least Durangian efforts. That won’t be a drawback for people coming to V&S&M&S with no knowledge of Beyond Therapy or Laughing Wild. But it’s a little disconcerting that amid all the hosannahs that greeted V&S&M&S, no one seems to have asked: What has happened to the American Moliere? Where did all that bite (and all the pain behind it) go?

The one scene in which a few sharp teeth come out is the rant Vanya finally unleashes in the second act. We’ve been expecting some sort of outburst from the likable, repressed sadsack, but Vanya’s tirade is prompted by young Spike texting on his cellphone. As a result, what we get is a kind of off-topic complaint about all those multi-tasking young’uns not paying proper respect to the adult activities going on around them. I sympathize; I have a 23-year-old daughter. But his argument is already an over-familiar display of curmudgeonliness. It’s going to date this play very quickly.

What’s worse, the rant leads into a nostalgic reverie for — of all things — the gentler, more communally-shared, family days of The Ed Sullivan Show.

Vanya Show stills -050bBeware of who? Wendy Welch, Bob Hess and Nadine Marissa as Cassandra, the well-named maid.

This hymn to Howdy Doody comes from the playwright whose comedy, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, was a bracing acid bath for the traditional American family, complete with dead babies and alcoholism.Yes, the rant is a terrifically explosive moment. And some of its content can be chalked up to  Vanya’s own out-of-datedness (it’s a very Uncle Vanya-ish rant, after all — wondering what happened to the better days gone by). But so much of the rest of the play has the audience rooting for Vanya, not pigeonholing him as a clueless curmudgeon.

One doesn’t begrudge Durang any well-earned mellowing, any happiness that’s come his way. But to turn to extolling the comfy habits of the boomers’ black-and-white-TV, Cold-War era seems a strangely safe, even self-consciously cliched choice. Not to mention, it’s a historically and intellectually doubtful one. African-Americans, women and gays, to name three groups, might not view the period with such rose-colored blinders. And the oddness of this nostalgia might be apparent even to theatergoers unfamiliar with the playwright’s earlier razor work.

So. It’s taken this long to explain my concerns about Durang’s play and to get around, finally, to extolling the Players’ exemplary production. It’s rare, for instance, to find such seamless casting on a local stage. Diana Sheehan has been playing steely grande dames and faded divas in such shows as Grey Gardens — so slipping into a sardonic caricature like Masha feels effortless. She just ups the imperiousness and self-pity a little as Masha blithely bulldozes everyone around her. As Sonia, Wendy Welch has the role of a lifetime: It lets her be woebegone, bitter, deadpan funny and even vengefully glamorous. Her second-act impersonation of Maggie Smith at the Oscars in 1978 is a full-out delight.

As Spike, Evan Fentriss is weirdly good; this is his stage debut. He’s weirdly good at keeping one guessing whether Spike is just a goofy, self-obsessed hunk or — because he clearly has the famous Masha enthralled — whether he’s got something devious in mind. The doubts arise, especially, whenever he flaunts his shirtless, gym-hardened body at the befuddled Vanya. Nadine Marissa plays the possibly clairvoyant, possibly Caribbean maid, Cassandra, with an appealing, no-nonsense grumpiness while Julia Golder is the bright, happy ingenue-from-next-door as Nina.

Which leaves Bob Hess. Vanya is probably the best showcase Hess has had in years, and if he doesn’t have that little, put-upon brittleness, that extra edge he needs at first (he’s just so likable), he, too, seems to be thoroughly enjoying his time on stage. He gets laughs just by coming out dressed as ‘Doc,’ and his second-act rant — even as the validity and wisdom of Durang’s argument are questionable — is not just a tirade. He makes it heartfelt, and that goes a long way to selling it.

Directed with assurance by B. J. Cleveland, the Players’ V&S&M&S is accomplished precisely because it plays as if it’s ‘no big deal’ — from Clare Floyd Devries’ handsome set to all the solid performances. While the Players’ house style has tended toward the campy, juicy and over-the-top, this is a case where — even with all of Durang’s comic contrivances — the actors seem perfectly at home in this silliness. It says a lot about the Durang comic method that a scene in which both Sonia and Masha howl about how miserable they are (top photo, above) is one of the break-out funnier ones here. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” goes Samuel Beckett’s famous line in Endgame, “I’ll grant you that.”

And I’ll grant you this added, historical note: There’s a touching sense of homecoming with the Players staging V&S&M&S at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. In 1986, the Kalita was where Dallas Theater Center artistic director Adrian Hall staged Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo in a stellar production. Two years later, in the same building — in the basement space directly beneath the Kalita stage — Michael Grief (director of Rent and Grey Gardens on Broadway) did a terrific job with Durang’s two-hander, Laughing Wild, starring Allen McCalla and Linda Gehringer.

So before this, the Kalita was home to two of the sharpest Durang productions in North Texas. It may have been a happy surprise to see Durang do so well on Broadway. But it wasn’t such a surprise here.