By John Dwyer
The current show at the Bucks County Playhouse is one of the most anticipated of the season. The reason: Bucks County native Christopher Durang, the Tony Award-winning author of the play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, dared to take on the role of Vanya in this production. And when I say one of the most anticipated shows of the season, I don’t just mean for Bucks County Playhouse subscribers, I mean for anyone in the area who is interested in seeing theater history and who wants to see a brilliant play and the creator of that play in the lead.
Who wouldn’t want to see Tennessee Williams take on the role of Tom in The Glass Menagerie or Edward Albee do George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Everything aside, the brilliant casting and Durang’s willingness to take on the role make this a historic theatrical event.
Many years ago, the Playhouse had a similar precedent with Thornton Wilder as the Stage Manager in his play, Our Town. This production is even more daring when you realize the courage it takes to perform in your own backyard. Personally, it has always seemed more daunting to know family and friends are in the audience than a blank slate of people. Durang is to be commended for the utmost bravery in taking on Vanya. We are the beneficiaries and are most grateful.
The show is the deserved winner of the 2013 Tony for “Best Play.” It also won the Drama Desk Award and New York Critics Circle Award. The title of the play is the names of its four main characters. The first three names are this family’s middle-aged brother and his two sisters. Their parents, who obviously loved the arts, named the siblings after Chekhov characters. Spike is the Millennial 20-something boy toy of Masha. The play revolves around family, personal identity and the need for respect and love in general and between family members, in particular.
As in Chekhov, there are universal themes and laughter through tears. There is even a small cherry orchard outside their home in Upper Bucks County. Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia have stayed home in their Bucks County house dealing with aging parents while Masha got out and became a famous movie star. Vanya and Sonia are unemployed, but bore the burden of taking care of the family. Masha went off to much fame and fortune. She sent checks to bankroll her family, but was physically and emotionally absent from her their problems.
Now, she has returned to attend an influential neighbor’s costume party and to sell the house. The selling of their home is a devastating prospect for Vanya and Sonia. The subject matter is dark, but the laughs abound. Masha has brought with her Spike, an aspiring actor and her current lover. During the course of the evening you also meet the home’s psychic housekeeper, Cassandra, and the disarmingly young next door neighbor, Nina. In all of this, Durang proves he is a brilliant writer who nudges painful reality toward the absurd and makes us laugh, even though the issues are quite serious. He has revealed in prior interviews that he has been influenced by classic Hollywood comedies, and by TV’s I love Lucy, and the genuine reactions of his characters in difficult but crazy situations confirms those early influences.
The plum role of Sonia as done by Deidre Madigan is perfection. Philadelphia critics take note: It looks like a shoe-in for a Barrymore nomination this season. Sonia, who is so vulnerable and frustrated, is a comic gift that Durang gives to any actress lucky enough to perform the role, and no one seems to be a more gifted recipient than the brilliant Madigan.
Marylu Henner is wonderful as the self-absorbed Masha in what is arguably the most challenging role in the play. And the well-muscled hunk protégé Spike, as played by Jimmy Mason, is a man for all seasons and reasons. The roles of soothsayer maid Cassandra and winsome neighbor Nina are played well by the hyper-energetic Mahira Kakkar and the lovely Clea Alsip, respectively. Kudos also to Sheryl Kaller as director and Lauren Helpern for set design.
Finally, Christopher Durang gave a yeoman’s performance. It lacked the needed freneticness during one Act Two monologue, but all in all, he was fine. And he was why I ran to get my tickets. I love this play and I love that he accepted the role.
In this author’s opinion, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was not just the best play of 2013, but the best comedy of the last decade. It is Durang’s best work. He put everything into the play, and in this production, he actually he put himself. The laughter was so loud, noise ordinances were being violated. Durang in Durang is a piece of theater heaven, a must-see for any theater lover, and one for history books. Above all, the show offers further proof that the Playhouse is the community theater for the theater community.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will be performed through Aug. 10 at the Bucks County Playhouse, (215) 862-2121. Tickets are $29-$74.50, and running time is about 2 hours and 20 minutes with intermission.