Life as a Checkov Play

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Taper)userpic=ahmansonWhen your parents name you and your siblings after characters in Chekov‘s plays, that’s never a good sign. When your life starts to take on elements of those plays, things get a little absurd. At least that’s the notion at the heart of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike“, which we saw last night at the Mark Taper Forum in DTLA (Downtown LA, for those not up on the latest acronyms). Short summary: I went in with no expectations, and left thinking this was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long while.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike“, written by Christopher Durang, tells the story of three siblings: Vanya, Sonia, and Masha. There parents, who were professors, named them after characters in Chekov plays. Vanya (who is gay) and Sonia (who is adopted) are in their mid-50s, living together in their parent’s house (having taken care of their parents through their dotage). That’s all they’ve done with their life. They sit in the house, complain about their lives, and are taken care of by their housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is like the Cassandra of Greek Mythology — she have visions that everyone ignores. Their sister, Masha, is a famous actress who actually owns the house they live in and pays all their bills. In this midst of one of Sonia’s bipolar meltdowns, she mentions that Masha is coming to visit that weekend. Masha arrives with her much younger boyfriend, Spike, and (a) informs them that they are going to a costume party that evening, and (b) she is planning on selling the house on the advise of her personal assistant. Spike decides to absent himself from the family reunion, and meets up with Nina, a young woman visiting her aunt and uncle nearby. He brings Nina back to meet Masha, and Nina ends up being invited to the costume party, as well as being invited to read a play that Vanya has written. For further details on the plot twists, I’ll let you go over to Wikipedia to read the synopsis of both acts.

Durang describes this play as being “Chekov in a blender.” That’s great if you’re familiar with Chekov. I’m not, so I did the next best thing: I looked them up on Wikipedia. As Durang noted, there appear to be elements drawn from many different Chekov plays. Vanya is like Boris Trigorin, the middle-aged writer of The Seagull, and Nina is again an ingenue who is the “soul of the world”. Trigorin is writing a modern and existentialist play, just like Vanya. There is also an aging actress, Irina Arkadina, who is like Masha. But there are differences as well: in The Seagull, Tirgorin is Arkadina’s young and foolish son. There are also parallels to Chekov’s Three Sisters with the siblings Vasha, Sonia, and Masha — but Masha is not like Masha in the play. There are numerous references to the dialogue from Three Sisters, and Nina is celebrating her “Name Day” (being a fan of Chekov).  VSM&S also contains elements of The Cherry Orchard, with numerous references to the family’s cherry orchard (of 10 trees), and the notion of the family estate being sold for financial reasons. There’s also an adopted daughter, Varya, who has some parallels to Sonia. There are also some elements of Dunyasha in Cassandra in the tendency to make big scenes. Lastly, there are also parallels with Uncle Vanya, not only with the name of main character, but with the nature of Sonia (both are of a marriageable age but considered plain). There is also the overall melancholy over a wasted life that carries over from Uncle Vanya. Lastly, there’s also the notion of subtext that comes over from all four plays. My guess is: if you’re familiar with Chekov, this adds to the “in jokes” of the play. For someone not familiar with Chekov, this all goes right over your head (although it is fun to look up afterwards).

So, for those unfamiliar with Chekov, why see this? The short and simple answer is that it is well-performed and very funny. I’ll get to the performances in a little bit, but lets focus on the non-Chekovian humor. The play, in many ways, has its absurd elements. Cassandra and her visions. Spike and his young sensibilities, throwing off his clothes for almost no reason. Sonia and her dispair. Masha and her self-importance. There are the costumes of the costume party; the floating molecules of Vanya’s play; the names and types of projects with with Masha and Spike have been associated. There’s Cassandra’s behavior at the start of the Act II, which I’m not going to spoil but is absolutely hilarious. The absurdity of the situations just make you laugh.

However, the real parallel between this play and Chekov — and what I believe was the real intent of Durang — is the commentary on modern life. In Three Sisters, Chekov was commenting on the decay of privileged life; in Cherry Orchard it was cultural futility; and Uncle Vanya was on wasted lives. This play, in many ways, is a commentary on the vapidness of many youth these days. This is embodied in the character of Spike — who just lives in the moment, not caring about his impact on others, thinking only of himself. Spike is also used to comment on the boorishness of theatre-goers these days, with Spike’s behavior in the second act of unwrapping food and texting during Vanya’s play being the thing that sets Vanya off of what is the best rant I’ve ever seen. In this rant, Vanya goes off on the youth of today, as well as the vapid nature of television and society. Essentially, the youth of today has no substance. In contrast, Vanya and Sonia are living in the past — they want things to remain as they have always have been. They prefer the steady state, not taking risks, and the potential sale of the family estate scares them. They miss the values of the past.

In all of this, what are roles of Masha and Nina? Nina represents the other side of youth and innocence. Her desire to be an actress makes Masha think of herself when she was young — and she perceives this as a threat. Masha also sees Nina as a threat to her relationship with Spike (there is a threat, but it is not Nina). Masha herself is partially a commentary on actors today, who often give up the possibility of success on the legitimate stage with deep works (such as Chekov) for the quick money of TV movies and their empty storylines — and then get trapped into that cycle. Ultimately, Masha’s battle is with herself and her aging: whereas the stage accepts the fact that actors age and writes roles for older actors, TV and movies subsist on the young and move the middle-aged to the beautiful grandmother roles (which Masha cannot accept). Her ultimate movement to acceptance of her age is perhaps the most touching character arc of the show.

As noted before, the performances of this show were excellent. Having not seen the show in New York, I cannot tell which directorial aspects came from the New York director, Nicholas Martin, and what came from the Los Angeles director, David Hyde Pierce (FB). All I know is that the performances just worked — there were the right emotions where they needed to be, movements worked well, and the actors seemed to be having fun. I’ll just have to credit the invisible directoral hand and the talent of the actors, for I can’t separate the two.

In looking at the performances, let’s start with Vanya (Mark Blum) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen (FB). Blum’s Vanya is gentle but crazy; a soft warm slipper who provides comfort. He is delighted to watch Spike, but will never admit it. Blum absolutely shines during the second act with his tirade against modern times — I think everyone in the audience over 45 will identify with this completely (and given most theatre audiences these days, that’s probably a large majority of the folks there). Nielsen’s Sonia is a different sort of crazy, often going off in unexpected directions and with unexpected emotions. Her shining moment was also in the second act: her performance with the post-party phone call was both hilarious and touching, and highlighted the nuances of her character in many ways. I’ll note that Nielsen was in the original Broadway cast in this role.

Next there was Masha (Christine Ebersole (FB)). My biggest problem with Ebersole’s performance had nothing to do with Ebersole and everything to do with my head — I kept hearing Edie Beale from Grey Gardens. Setting that aside, Ebersole was a delight throughout, capturing the self-absorbed actress Masha well. Yet as strong and comic as the self-absorbed performances were, the most touching performances where Ebersole’s performances near the end when she dropped the actress facade and became the real person. Her interactions with Cassandra at this point were just delightful.

Rounding out the cast were Spike (David Hull), Cassandra (Shalita Grant (FB)), and Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager (FB)). Hull’s Spike was youthful, muscular, and projected the requisite vapid eye candy aspects required for the role. His expressions during Vanya’s tirade were priceless. Grant’s Cassandra was a delight (not surprising as she was in the original cast), with the right touch of overacting required for a “seer” role. I particularly enjoyed Grant during the Act II opening scene with the doll, but her interactions with Masha at the end, as well as her first entrance, were just great. Lastly, Yeager’s Nina projected just the right amount of youthful innocence and deep soul required for the character.

A strong cast, all.

Turning to the technical side: as always, the Taper excels with putting houses on stage. We saw this with Other Desert Cities; and we see it again here with the lovely house set and scenic design by David Korins (FB). The simplicity and power of this set makes me think this is a perfect show for Rep East or The Colony. The set was lit effectively by David Weiner. Similarly, the sound design (and opening/closing music) by Mark Bennett was unobtrusive and clear.  The costumes by Gabriel Berry worked well — especially the humorous costume party costumes. Wig, Hair, and Makeup Design were by Cookie Jordan. Additional credits: Bryan Hunt (Associate Director), David S. Franklin (Production Stage Manager), Michelle Blair (Stage Manager), Denise Yaney (Stage Manager). Staff for the Mark Taper Forum/CTG are listed here.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” continues at the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre Group through March 9. Tickets are available through their website; Hottix may also be available by calling customer service at 213.628.2772.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  This afternoon takes us to North Hollywood, where we are seeing “Discord: The Gospel According to Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy” (LA Stage Tix) at the No Ho Arts Center. I never found discount tickets, but there was a discount code on the Independent Shakespeare Company’s FB page. Next weekend (February 8) brings “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend (February 16) brings Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The next weekend, February 22, is currently open. I may be needing to do a site visit to Portland OR for ACSAC; if not, I’m keeping my eyes open for “On The Money” at the Victory Theatre Center (FB) or “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain Theatre (FB) (as this runs through April 19, this might be good for mid-March or April), or something else that hasn’t caught my attention yet. The last day of February sees us in Studio City at Two Roads Theatre for Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing“, followed the next evening by the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel. March theatre starts with “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8.  (this might be good for March 16); The weekend of March 16 brings Purim Schpiels, with Sunday afternoon bringing “Inherit the Wind” at the Grove Theatre Center (FB) in Burbank. March 22 is being held for “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). March concludes with “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. April will start with “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 5, and should also bring “Tallest Tree” at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as the Southern California Renaissance Faire. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.