By Joel Pierson, H-T Theater columnist
Christopher Durang is one strange dude. The American playwright has penned some really off-the-wall comedies over the years, filled with absurdist notions and sensibilities.
Back in college, I had the pleasure of acting in two of them, “Titanic” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.” The former was a highly irreverent retelling of the maritime disaster, while the latter poked fun at Catholic school. Fast forward a few years to 2013, and we find Durang’s latest comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” winning a Tony Award on Broadway for best play. This time around, he’s skewering the dramatic works of Anton Chekhov, with a very funny and crowd-pleasing script that’s been one of the top 10 most produced plays in the country for the past four years.
It tells the story of an aging movie star named Masha (portrayed by Abby Lee), who comes back to her childhood home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to visit her middle-aged brother Vanya (Tino Brokaw) and sister Sonia (Tara Chiusano), whom she supports financially. As if these quarters weren’t tight enough, Masha brings home her new eye-candy boyfriend Spike (Robert Toms). He’s a bit young for her (OK, half her age), and his biggest problem is being able to find his zipper fast enough.
As in any good absurdist play, complications ensue. We meet an attractive neighbor named Nina (Talia Santia), who has her eye on Spike. The siblings’ housekeeper Cassandra (Brianna Milan) keeps sharing prophecies of doom, while Masha threatens to sell the family house and leave her brother and sister homeless.
Despite the character names and the frequent references to Chekhov’s plays, the playwright swears up and down that this isn’t a Chekhov parody. It’s more of a loving tribute to the Russian author’s themes and character studies, almost as if Durang had put them in a blender. (His own description of the story.) But don’t fret — you don’t have to be a theater scholar to appreciate the humor. Anyone who’s ever experienced sibling rivalry will appreciate the themes and personalities depicted in this often-dark comedy.
Director Jonathan Michaelsen observed, “It’s funny and touching at the same time. Durang is a great playwright, and he’s able to combine his humor with characters that have hearts. They have a journey; they go through a clear arc. It’s a farce, but we also need to build characters that are honest.”
Yes, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” allows us to have a good laugh at the misfortunes of its characters, but Durang created them with compassion, respect and intelligence. Come for yourself and see why this award-winning comedy is fast becoming one of the most popular tickets in the country.
If You Go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance
WHAT: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21–22, 25–29, 2 p.m. Oct. 29
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington
TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit www.theatre.indiana.edu.
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Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times.