You really don’t need to know anything about Chekhov or his work to enjoy Arena Stage’s hilarious production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 smash hit by comedy playwright extraordinaire Christopher Durang. Mind you, if you are familiar with The Good Doctor, you will be in stitches over some of the delicious references that litter the play. This Vanya and Sonia… has an energy all its own, and the crazy cast of characters, expertly directed by Aaron Posner, forges a comedy legacy that is decidedly modern.
From the beginning, it is clear that Vanya and Masha… is all too aware of its Chekhovian heritage. Vanya and Sonia bemoan that their parents were Chekhov enthusiasts and named their children accordingly. Vanya, a gay man played with sweet bitterness by Eric Hissom, lives with his melodramatic sister Sonia (Sherri L. Edelen) in their childhood home. They despair how they wasted their lives taking care of their ailing parents, while their sister Masha went and became a rich and famous movie star. As if on cue (hey, it is on cue!) Masha (played with extraordinary narcissism by Grace Gonglewski) enters with her much younger boy toy, Spike (the hunky Jefferson Farber). It turns out they are going to a costume party that evening, and the whole family is invited (as long as they tailor their costumes to complement Masha’s Snow White). But when a young aspiring actress named Nina (Rachel Esther Tate) comes into the household, she threatens to disrupt Masha’s evening, and by extension the entire household.
It is to the actors’ credit that they manage to fully embody the more clownish aspects of their roles (see: flying coffee cups) without ever departing from the essential truth of their characters. No one is more skilled at this than Jessica Frances Dukes, who plays Cassandra, the psychic cleaning lady. Like her mythological namesake, Cassandra is doomed to foretell the future with no one believing her dire prophecies. Dukes is a powerhouse from her first to last moment, and, with cornrows flapping, left the audience with dropped jaws and tears from laughing.
The show starts out strong and accelerates as it progresses, with barely a moment passing by not accompanied by raucous laughter. But there’s a real heart in the show too, and despite the wacky humor and occasional blow job reference, Director Aaron Posner ensures this remains a show about a family that wants to reconcile despite their many differences. The show is a classic “living room drama”, with one set (a beautiful set by Set Designer Daniel Conway) and a lot of talking. But love, loss, and life all happen in these two hours traffic on stage.
This is not a parody of Chekhov; this is Chekhov, relocated to modern day America and glazed with a layer of Durang. Arena Stage’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a delicious experience all around.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
Magic Time!: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by John Stoltenberg.