Chekov updated for a post-Prozac world in OCT’s uneven production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
As with writers David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin, to properly experience playwright Christopher Durang you first have to commit to the musical rhythms of his language. Durang’s humor, dark and cynical as it is, lies within that rhythm.
Under the direction of Tara Wibrew, Durang’s award-wining 2012 comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is on now at Oregon Contemporary Theatre. Opening night, OCT’s production hit the beat at times, only to falter at others.
The play tells the story of Vanya and Sonia (played respectively by Russell Dyball and Nancy West), a pair of siblings living in rural Pennsylvania who are financially supported by their movie star sister Masha (played by Storm Kennedy).
See a pattern here? You don’t have to be intimately familiar with Russian playwright Anton Chekov to get Vanya and Sonia, at least not on any deeper level than Russian literature equals grand human misery. Durang’s script is, however, peppered with allusions to Chekov, and familiarity will only deepen your appreciation.
Vanya and Sonia’s bucolic yet sad-sack existence is disrupted when Masha sweeps in from the city with her too-young-for-her beefcake boyfriend Spike (Josh Francis). Masha is like a black hole of self-absorption; for Durang’s characters, self-pity and self-effacement are like pastimes. Upon entering, Masha is given the stage, and Kennedy bulldozes Durang’s language to an unfortunate extent, just as Masha bulldozes people in her life.
Soon, Kennedy settles into the role nicely and you understand that perhaps Wibrew and Kennedy looked at Masha like an onion, slowly peeling back the layers of youth obsession and superficiality to see the wounds and suffering underneath.
And with Durang, wounds and suffering are always funny. Soon the pretty and well-scrubbed local girl, Nina (Hailey Henderson), comes between Masha and Spike. Kennedy nails the pathos of a starlet in decline, grappling with jealousy and petty insecurities.
The introduction of Nina highlights some awkward stage direction hampering the play. Nina is purportedly a paragon of youthful beauty, yet for an extended period of time, half the audience stares only at her back. Later, a sight gag is lost due to a similar staging gaffe.
Another wobbly part of the production lies in the script itself. The character Cassandra is Vanya and Sonia’s soothsaying black housekeeper, and Donella-Elizabeth Alston is excellent in the role with several great comic moments. I wonder, however, what Cassandra’s blatant Mammy archetype adds to the play, particularly juxtaposed to Durang’s usual all-white Northeastern sensibilities and preoccupations.
Much more consistent are Dyball and West as Vanya and Sonia. Their moments alone on stage are Durang at his finest. Vanya is not so much a closeted gay man as a highly repressed individual in all aspects of his life. Dyball conveys a lifetime of unfulfilled longing, gazing upon Spike’s frequently naked torso. And West’s understated comic timing shows she truly understands Durang’s absurd, caustic and highly funny worldview.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays through June 11 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; info and tickets at octheatre.org or 541-465-1506.