Inspired by the writings of Anton Chekhov, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a hard-edged, humorous play by writer Christopher Durang’s, whose works thematically tend toward abusive relationships. In this case, the family is divided by childish dependency, extravagance and narcissism, and the dysfunction is finally catching up with them. The four eponymous figures do not generate the pathos one finds in a Chekhov play. It is instead a satirical melodrama between unlikable caricatures, but it all comes together brilliantly through sharp, incisive dialog.
Vanya (R. Hamilton Wright) and Sonia (Marianne Owen) spend their days pining at the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The immature homebodies who cared for the family’s ailing parents, and now that the parents have passed away the siblings are free to lead their own lives—but they are stuck in the mentality of caretakers. Incapable of redefining their lives, they wail “my life is over.”
Meanwhile, sister Masha (Pamela Reed of Parks and Recreation and Kindergarten Cop) has been the family benefactor as a Hollywood actress, but narcissistic (and somewhat pragmatic in showbiz) her age has her fearing her own loss of value. She arrives from sunny California with her young, hunky and equally self absorbed boyfriend Spike (William Poole) to announce her intent to sell the house. The cleaning lady Cassandra (Cynthia Jones) is the only truthful voice attempting to keep everyone in check.
Durang pulls from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard about a Russian family who is forced to make hard decisions—either work to replenish their wealth or sell their estate and its orchard. Durang tips his hat to Chekhov with humorous allusions in the dialog, such as “ten or twelve cherry trees is not an orchard”—also a biting response to the childish imagination of Sonia, who views the cherry trees with more appreciation than she affords the rest of the family. Themes of denial and entitlement are common to both plays, as is a broad and deep understanding of the work required in life. Relationships—familial and romantic—are hard work. Owning and maintaining a home is hard work. Love in all its forms is hard work. Nothing comes easy, not even valuable family bonds.
Family dynamics are further challenged with a costume party in the End of Act 1, where Masha has a great idea for everyone to dress up as characters from Snow White. She will be Snow White, of course, while Vanya and Sonia will be two dwarfs—Dopey and Doc. The suggestion turns into a slew of family arguments. They face-off against each other’s selfishness and lack of creativity, but ultimately arrive at a place of understanding through a recognition of the insecurity plaguing all of them.
This does not mean they are entirely wiser or more self-possessed or aware. In the end of play, Vanya has a monologue about change, in which he criticizes the current generation’s device-addiction and lack of focus. A typical curmudgeon (in this case, the Baby Boomer contra Millennials), he claims old tropes like, “We licked our own stamps, and we sent letters” and then addresses the media itself, in which the audience is more directly implicated:
The popular entertainment wasn’t so insane back then. It was sometimes corny, but sincere. We all saw the movie “Davy Crockett” and wore coonskin caps. That may not sound sane, wearing those caps, but it was very innocent. And we all did it, there was a solidarity about it, unlike being alone in your room killing prostitutes in a video game.
The cry for sincerity may be valid depending on whom you ask, but attached to nostalgic, pioneer tropes like Davy Crockett belies the oblivion of “sincerity” in that age; the good ole days were not good for everyone. The 1950s were vexed with racial segregation and McCarthyism, while the booming suburbs could easily turn a blind eye to inequality and suffering, to the bloody history of colonialism. They weren’t killing prostitutes in video games, but they were still killing “injuns” in their backyards.
The cast, in essence, remains infantile, but they have crossed a threshold, and it is worth following them on the raucous way there. The characters may be caricatures, but that is what makes them universally recognizable in America today. Everyone has “that” uncle who seems to drive the family crazy with his inflated ego or childishness. His dialog and antics raise conversations in the characters that perhaps we all need to have with our loved ones. But if you have such a conversation—tempted as one may be this time of year—maybe leave the costumes in the closet.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at ACT Theatre through November 16. Buy tickets and see the schedule online.
To get a taste of what this play is about, please indulge in a young Judy Dench in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard on Youtube.