Thank god for Jay and Susinn and Anna and Robert (and Carmen and Katey). For if it weren’t for its superb cast, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would have been a rather dull affair.
Having resided at their Bucks Country, Pennsylvania family home (beautifully realized by designer Alison Green) their entire lives, Vanya and Sonia have never worked a lick in their lives. While they stayed at home to look after their ailing parents, it was up to the third sibling, Masha, to work and keep the household running. Not some Wall Street banker bringing home the bacon, instead Masha is a movie star who is as dramatic in real-life as the character she plays in the teen slasher franchise (five of them in total). As the trio grow older, Vanya and Sasha begin to examine their seemingly wasted lives, and Masha goes kicking and screaming into playing her next offered role, as a (gasp) grandmother.
Despite great fodder from its three eccentric central characters, there isn’t much that happens in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Sure there are some welcome interruptions from the outside world, but these visitors only emphasize the unevenness of Durang’s play. While the bulk of it may be in keeping with Durang’s constant references to Anton Chekov’s plays and characters, it at times grew as tiresome as some of the Russian playwright’s own writing. And even as Durang attempts to live up to what its marketers refer to as a “witty mash-up of Chekhov characters and smartphones”, with a generous serving of pop-culture references, it is not quite enough to fully hold our attention over its two and a half hours. The second act is the stronger of the two, but it also the most incongruent, especially as Durang suddenly begins to pine for a simpler time against the backdrop of Vanya’s odd play-within-a-play.
What does hold our attention though are the performances of this cast. As the interlopers, Carmen Aguirre plays the psychic housekeeper with wild abandon, Katey Hoffman is wonderfully wide-eyed and delightfully innocent as the aspiring actress next door, and Robert Salvador rises above his role of Spike, Masha’s potentially one-note blonde-streaked boy-toy.
The play’s central character portrayals are as strong as its supporting ones, with equally compelling performances from Jay Brazeau (Vanya), Susinn McFarlen (Sonia) and Anna Galvin (Masha). Brazeau is particularly funny and appealing in his interactions with Spike, while McFarlen gives her Sonia a despair that is beautifully and hilariously contrasted when she ventures out to a costume party as Snow White’s Evil Queen, as played by Maggie Smith. It is Galvin though that gives the strongest and biggest performance of the night as Masha who, in gradually revealing her true self, solidifies the hopefulness that concludes the play.
The interactions between these three actors is at times astounding to watch as well. Brazeau and McFarlen find the heart in their character’s love/hate relationship, and the opening scene in act two between McFarlen (“I haven’t lived”) and Galvin (“My life is over”) is a master-class that finds an astounding balance between its absurdity and reality.
Like director Rachel Ditor I too performed in Durang’s Beyond Therapy in the 1980s and found it subversive and hilarious. But while Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is equally as funny and sad and hopeful, it can also be a little boring. If that is what it means to grow-up, I’m not sure I’m quite ready.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang. Directed by Rachel Ditor. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until April 19. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.