Durang channels Chekhov in Huntington’s ‘Vanya’

Tyler Lansing Weaks, Marcia DeBonia, Martin Moran, Allison Layman, Candy Buckley, and Haneefah Wood in Christopher Durang’s smash-hit Broadway comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Jessica Stone, based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin, playing January 2 – February 1, 2015 at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts. Photo: Jim Cox

Tyler Lansing Weaks, Marcia DeBonia, Martin Moran, Allison Layman, Candy Buckley, and Haneefah Wood in Christopher Durang’s smash-hit Broadway comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Jessica Stone, based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin, playing January 2 – February 1, 2015 at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts. Photo: Jim Cox

BOSTON — The Huntington Theatre Company has had great success with the plays of both the Russian master Anton Chekhov and American Christopher Durang.

The Huntington’s production of Durang‘s “Betty’s Summer Vacation” starring Andrea Martin and directed by the late Nicholas Martin in 2001 was quite simply one of the funniest productions I’ve ever seen, and “Laughing Wild,” also directed by Martin and including Durang in the cast, was also a success.
Most recently, the Huntington presented Chekhov’s “The Seagull” to acclaim last season and also scored with “The Cherry Orchard” in 2007.
So it was right in the wheelhouse of both the Huntington — and its audience — when the theater decided to present the regional premiere of Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” now on stage at the BU Theatre through Feb. 1.
Durang’s trademark outrageous characters doing outrageous things is skillfully melded with the quirks, tempo, the outlook of the characters on life, and other aspects of Chekhov’s works. The coincidence is purely intentional.
“In my 20s, I read Chekhov’s plays and loved them,” said Durang. “My impetus for “Vanya” … was the realization that I am now the age of Chekhov’s older characters. I found myself wanting to write a comic play — not a parody, but its own thing. So I took themes and characters from Chekhov, and put them into a comic blender.”
Martin, the former artistic director at the Huntington, directed “Vanya” on Broadway to a surprise Tony win and was to direct this production before passing away last year and being replaced by Jessica Stone. The production is dedicated to him.

Marcia DeBonia, Martin Moran, and Allison Layman in Christopher Durang’s smash-hit Broadway comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Jessica Stone, based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin, playing January 2 – February 1, 2015 at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts. Photo: Jim Cox

Marcia DeBonia, Martin Moran, and Allison Layman in Christopher Durang’s smash-hit Broadway comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Jessica Stone, based on the Broadway direction of Nicholas Martin, playing January 2 – February 1, 2015 at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts. Photo: Jim Cox

The opening scene has fifty-something brother and sister Vanya (Martin Moran) and Sonia (Marcia DeBonis) living a quiet, bucolic, present-day existence in a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa.– parts of which might remind local residents of both the Berkshires and Cape Cod. They are the product of “two professor parents who were active in community theater,” which explains the names.
The quiet is disturbed when their glamorous movie star sister Masha (Candy Buckley) arrives for the weekend with her sexy, much-younger boyfriend Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks), who spends much of the production prancing around the stage in his underwear.
Vanya and Sonia essentially have never lived — devoting much of the past 15 years caring for their aging parents — while Masha — who has been married five times — has supported the family with her acting.
Sonia is a spinster with a capital “S” and Vanya, meanwhile, admits to being gay and appears intrigued by Spike, but it too timid to even bring up the subject except to stare longingly at him.
Spike’s crowning achievement to date in his young life is almost being cast in the sequel to the HBO series “Entourage.”
But Masha decides the time is ripe to shake things up by selling the farmhouse, and that sets the stage for fireworks.
There’s strong support from Allison Layman as the sweet but naïve neighbor Nina — a foil for Masha’s machinations — and Haneefah Wood as Cassandra , the soothsayer/cleaning woman whose prophecies have a habit of coming true and who appears to have a hand for, shall we say, the black arts.
A costume party allows Sonia to do her killer Maggie Smith imitation while Masha dumps on Nina, forcing her to dress up as Dopey of the Seven Dwarfs.
“Vanya” could be a drinking game where you take a swig when you come upon one of the many Chekhovian references, including multiple mentions of a cherry orchard and even a hilarious play within a play a la “The Seagull.“
This being Durang, one of the characters will have a meltdown, and this time it’s Moran as Vanya, with a long, hilarious rant about the good old days and the shallowness of the younger generation.
Sonia gets a call from the friend made at the costume party that was a debacle for Masha, and what follows is a warm, winning turn by DeBonis as she expresses her wonder that someone might actually be interested in her.
Vanya even talks about getting a job, even as he recoils from the word almost like Maynard G. Krebs reacting to the word “work” in the old “Dobie Gillis” TV series.
Stone’s direction is sharp and steady, and “Vanya” proceeds apace at a very strong clip from the outset and never slows down.
David Korins’ exquisitely detailed and beautifully-appointed farmhouse with porch continues in the Huntington’s tradition of excellence in scenic design
“Vanya” isn’t as dark as much of Durang’s repertoire and a somewhat positive, optimistic ending is also a departure from most of his work, but at its best — and that’s almost all of the time — it is a fast, funny send-up and tribute to the Russian playwright he so admires.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Directed by Jessica Stone, based on the Broadway direction by Nicholas Martin. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Gabriel Barry. Lighting design by David Weiner. Original music and sound design by Mark Bennett. At the BU Theatre through Feb. 1. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org.

 

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