Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Jay Brazeau Credit: David Cooper
Jay Brazeau
Credit: David Cooper

At The Stanley until April 19, 2015

Posted March 27, 2015

As you might guess from the title, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a mash-up of the major plays of Chekhov, scrambled together by American playwright Christopher Durang and set in the present. Some of the pleasure is derived from getting the allusions and patting yourself on the back when you find them, although it’s probably fun even if you don’t know them.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the grownup offspring of now deceased ‘community theatre’ thespian parents. Masha (Anna Galvin) is an actress but probably not a very good one and, in the role, Galvin is relentlessly, hilariously self-absorbed. Married five times, at forty-one Masha is now hanging out with twenty-something Spike (Robert Salvador), a super-studly would-be actor. Masha makes B-movies and pays the bills on the family home where her unmarried, 50-something siblings Vanya (Jay Brazeau) and Sonia (Susinn McFarlen) spend their time drinking coffee on the couch and sniping at each other. There are cherry trees out back but not quite enough to make an orchard. There’s a young neighbor called Nina (Katey Hoffman) who’s dazzled by Masha’s celebrity and there’s a kooky housekeeper called Cassandra (Carmen Aguirre) who sees the future. And, yes, it looks as if Masha is going to sell the house.

Anna Galvin Credit: David Cooper
Anna Galvin
Credit: David Cooper

There are some very funny lines in this play and they are delivered by two of Vancouver ‘s finest: McFarlen and Brazeau. But you have to doubt the discernment of American award committees that gave Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play in 2013. It’s funny and it’s entertaining and I did laugh but if this play represents the best America has to offer, American theatre is in big trouble.

It’s true that if you go digging, there’s meat in this mash. Chekhovian themes run through it: longing for a different life, unfulfilled dreams and paralyzing resistance to change.

Indeed, Brazeau (as Vanya) delivers a long harangue late in the play and it feels as if the whole play has been leading to the moment when Vanya (and/or the playwright) can lament the past – represented ludicrously by “postage stamps that required licking.” It’s really a boomer’s rant: memories of watching lame TV with the family, dial phones, writing letters with a pen, eating Spam, playing Scrabble and Monopoly (“Better than killing prostitutes in video games”, he says), Ozzie and Harriet and Old Yeller. “The 50s were idiotic but I miss part of them”, wails Vanya. Our society, he says, is “disconnected”.

Susinn McFarlen Credit: David Cooper
Susinn McFarlen
Credit: David Cooper

This monologue echoes one by Gayev in The Cherry Orchard when he waxes silly over the family’s “dear, honored bookcase.” It’s not the bookcase Gayev will miss when the house is sold, it’s the shared past with shared values. In our gadget-ridden, screen-besotted, 21st century world, we understand the disconnection that comes, ironically, from always being connected.

But you do have to go digging in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to find depth. Directed by Rachel Ditor, the play skims the surface and goes for laughs – which it gets. Salvador’s “reverse strip-tease” is wild; he just seems ‘crotch first’ all the time. Hoffman’s Nina is so bright-eyed and star struck you could weep for her. “You must always get your hopes up”, Nina says. Spoken like a child of the universe. And Aguirre’s hyperventilating howl repeatedly gets laughs.

It all happens on Alison Green’s lovely set: the interior of a gracious old home.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not a bad play, it’s just not a great play. And I was entertained. But Spring has come early to Vancouver and the worry is that the theatre’s “Silly Season” has arrived early, too.

Robert Salvador (centre) Credit: David Cooper
Carmen Aguirre, Robert Salvador, Jay Brazeau and Susinn McFarlen
Credit: David Cooper