It’s a running joke in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that the housekeeper, Cassandra, makes outrageous predictions that nobody heeds. If she’d predicted that Uptown Players’ production of Christopher Durang’s darkly comic play would be a raucous hit, nobody could have dared argue with her.
Riffing on well-known stories by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Charles Dickens is a Durang trademark, and here he sets his sights on Anton Chekov. If you’re acquainted with The Cherry Orchard or The Seagull, all the better to snatch up the literary references littered throughout the script. If those titles mean nothing to you, fret not: This play is still riotously funny.
Grown siblings Vanya (Bob Hess) and Sonia (Wendy Welch) live quietly in Bucks County, PA, beginning their days by gazing serenely out over the pond—and sometimes smashing coffee cups. They have spent most of their adult lives caring for their now deceased parents while their sister, Masha (Diana Sheehan), became a successful if wildly untalented movie star. Sonia bemoans her lack of an adventurous life while Vanya yearns to unleash his creative side (he’s been secretly writing a play). When Masha arrives for the weekend with her gorgeously stupid boy toy, Spike, in tow, she announces that she intends to sell the family home.
Played out on Clare Floyd Devries’ evocative farmhouse set and smoothly lit by Jason Foster, the farcical drama is kept from going over the edge by unexpected pockets of tenderness. When visiting girl-next-door Nina (big-eyed Julia Golder) brightly asks Vanya if she can call him uncle, the soft look in Hess’ eyes balances the waves of dawning laughter from the audience. And when introvert Sonia, afraid to attend a costume party with her deprecatory sister, gains confidence from a glamorous gown and adopted accent, there’s a streak of real, giddy triumph in Welch’s slinky staircase descent. Suzi Cranford’s costumes are sublime.
Director B.J. Cleveland also knows how to keep the jokes rolling, especially when it comes to the supporting characters of Spike and Cassandra, the housekeeper. Evan Fentriss, looking like a Crossfit Ken doll come to life, is making his stage debut as Spike and he vigorously gives equal parts dimwittedness and enthusiasm. As the voodoo-practicing, doom-foreseeing housekeeper, Nadine Marissa is a hoot—but not a Hootie Pie, thank goodness. (You just have to see the show to get the joke.)
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 Tony Award winner for best play, brought Durang back into the spotlight. The playwright first became known in the 1970s and ’80s for absurdly funny shows like Beyond Therapy and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, but his work always had an outré edge that sometimes didn’t translate into mainstream appreciation. Vanya might be Durang-lite but it’s still Durang at heart, and that outlandish humor and keen intelligence carries this screwball script.