Gay playwright Christopher Durang has gradually transitioned over the decades from penning authentically funny but more absurdist works like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Baby with the Bathwater and The Marriage of Bette and Boo to more “respectable” plays like the Pulitzer Prize finalist Miss Witherspoon and last year’s Tony Award winner, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Durang’s latest is currently making its Los Angeles debut at the Mark Taper Forum in a lively production helmed by out actor David Hyde Pierce, who performed in it on Broadway but chose to stay behind the scenes here.
Both a loving, US-set satire of Anton Chekhov’s theatre classics — most notably/obviously Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya — as well as a more in-your-face critique of our increasingly illiterate and forgetful culture, Durang gets to indulge his lifelong admiration for the Russian bard (which he amusingly chronicles in the show’s program) while somewhat minimizing but, thankfully, not abandoning his beloved acerbic wit.
The three “sisters” here are globe-trotting but aging actress Masha (the always enjoyable Christine Ebersole, taking over from the New York production’s Sigourney Weaver), the unwed and bipolar Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, reprising her Tony-nominated Broadway turn), and their gay brother Vanya (Mark Blum in the role Hyde Pierce originated). All were named after characters in Chekhov plays as a result of their late parents’ love for the writer. Whereas Masha has enjoyed a successful Hollywood career, Vanya and Sonia stayed on the family homestead in rural Pennsylvania to care for their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother and father. They have remained there for some time after their parents’ deaths, lonely and jobless but subsisting on a stipend Masha sends them each month.
Their psychic, African-American housekeeper (a hysterical Shalita Grant) warns Sonia and Vanya one morning of several premonitions she’s had, including a vision that Masha is soon returning and plans to sell their home. One premonition becomes reality only a few moments later when Masha enters, accompanied by her hot young boy toy, Spike (played by the hot, frequently undressed and thoroughly entertaining David Hull). They are ostensibly there to attend a wealthy neighbor’s costume party that night, which Masha plans to attend as Snow White joined by Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as two of the seven dwarves. Sonia, perpetually insulted by her spotlight-hogging sister, decides to acquire her own costume and ultimately attends in convoluted but hilarious guise as Snow White’s evil queen as played by Maggie Smith circa 1979, when Smith won her second Academy Award for California Suite.
True to the Chekhov blueprint, sibling rivalries gradually give way to reconciliation, the values of home and family are affirmed, and the follies of youth become stepping stones to graceful aging. There is also a Chekhovian theatrical performance within Durang’s homage, as Vanya arranges a preview of a play he is in the process of writing. This episode toward the end of Act 2, intended to be emotionally climactic, struck me as the weakest element in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. As a monologue, it is too long and repetitive, especially when Vanya bemoans ad nauseum the demise of lickable postage stamps in lieu of the self-sticking variety. Blum also failed to escalate his delivery of it on opening night, and it subsequently didn’t pack as much of a wallop as it should have.
Though this play stands on its own, the more familiar one is with Chekhov’s oeuvre the greater one’s appreciation will be. I have a premonition that at the Mark Taper and wherever Durang’s unquestionably entertaining effort is performed in the future, it will be a hit.
Reverend’s Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.