Plenty of laughs in IU’s production of Tony-winning play

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Abby Lee as Masha

Watching the first few minutes of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” one would not expect that Vanya and Sonia are the siblings of a movie star. They are the epitome of frumpiness.

While Vanya sips his coffee, Sonia wonders about the whereabouts of the blue heron she often spots through the window of the family’s Pennsylvania farmhouse. She also reminds Vanya that she has always been attracted to him. She was adopted, Sonia stresses, so it’s not weird.

Vanya and Sonia may not exude glamor and prestige, but their sister Masha does. She’s a high-profile actor — not as in demand as she used to be, but a star nonetheless. She’s the one who pays for the house where Vanya and Sonia live. She visits occasionally, often accompanied by a brand new man.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is Christopher Durang’s latest hit. The renowned playwright already had a litany of successes behind him when “Vanya” arrived on Broadway in 2013, but after winning a Tony for Best Play, this could be his most popular show yet.

It’s a comedy in the bizarre yet broadly appealing style that Durang has come to be known for. Durang’s work frequently makes references to famous dramas, and this play is something of an homage to Anton Chekhov. Themes, motifs and character names from Chekhov plays crop up throughout the script.

The Indiana University department of theatre, drama and contemporary dance is presenting “Vanya” this week in the Wells-Metz Theatre. Department chairman Jonathan Michaelsen has directed a lively production.

The events of “Vanya” take place during one of Masha’s brief visits to the family home. This time around, she’s with a rambunctious stud by the name of Spike. He’s too young for her, but more importantly, too stupid.

Masha, who has been dumped more than a few times, has a crippling (and legitimate) fear that Spike will abandon her. When she spies him chatting with a petite neighbor out by the pond, she frantically beckons him indoors. To Masha’s dismay, Spike brings little Nina in with him.

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Talia Santia as the sweet and sincere Nina.

Nina, a diehard fan of Masha, gleefully joins the four title characters for a costume party that evening. As if those five characters together aren’t strange enough, Durang also throws in a cleaning woman who constantly shouts ominous warnings and prophecies. Her name is Cassandra, and she usually knows what she’s talking about.

Durang’s writing strikes a delicate balance between realism and exaggerated humor, and Michaelsen’s production reflects that balance well. The six actors (three MFA students and three undergraduates) are all sharp and energetic.

Tara Chiusano gives an amusing but tender performance as Sonia. When a man from the costume party calls and asks her out to dinner, her nervous joy is adorable.

Abby Lee and Robert Toms pair excellently as Masha and Spike. Toms gives perhaps the most outlandish performance, in keeping with his character’s immature and bawdy persona.

The play is consistently funny, but the storyline is not compelling. Tony Award notwithstanding, I see a lack of focus and coherence in Durang’s writing.

For example, the opening bit about Sonia being attracted to Vanya is never followed up on. It’s simply abandoned. In the second act, Vanya has an impassioned monologue about nostalgia for the 1950s and the perils of modern technology. It’s a good speech, but I could not see how it was connected to the plot or themes of the play.

Some viewers will be bothered by little kinks like those. Others will be content to sit back and lap up the jokes, of which there is no shortage.

The quality of the production owes a lot to the stunning interior set designed by Alana Yurczyk. Courtney Foxworthy’s costume design is highly sensitive to the peculiarities of each character.

IU Theatre’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” at the very least, offers up some hearty laughs.

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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