Chekov and Stripteases

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" manages to balance laughs with touches of despair

Go, for the reverse striptease conducted by a magnificent young male showcasing his spectacularly ripped body.

Go, for the rant, eight minutes long, about how the world has changed for the worse since the introduction of personal electronic devices and the disastrous domination of multi-tasking.

Go for the earnest effort of a young would-be actress attempting to play a molecule.

Go for the superior performance of Suzanne Warmanen as she is one moment full of the ennui and self-loathing of everyday Sonia, transformed into the glittered and tiara-ed " . . . Evil Queen from 'Snow White,' as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars."

Now, if it seems to you that it's unlikely these things belong in the same play, you are absolutely right. But this is Christopher Durang, and his is a strange—and strangely stitched together—world. And Arizona Theatre Company's embrace of this world has blessed its season opener—"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"—with fun and games galore.

Although Durang intends more than an undercurrent of the serious echoes of playwright Anton Chekhov, that's hardly the point. Well, maybe a bit of the point. Vanya, Sonia and Masha, a sibling triumvirate, have been named by their well-educated and community theater-loving parents after some of Chekhov's famous characters. And Durang makes a strong case for an answer to the "What's in a name?" question, since Vanya and Sonia are full of similar paralyzing listlessness affecting Chekhov's characters, only in Bucks County, PA. The references are fun if you're familiar with Chekhov's work, but the fun hits its marks, whether you're familiar or not.

The play begins slowly, which establishes the Chekhovian echoes of the emptiness of life and the absence of hope, and that might interfere a bit with engaging the audience. And the strange morning ritual of Vanya (Charles Janasz) and Sonia who still live in their parents' house, is indeed, well, very strange, but funny-enough strange to hook us. And the slower pace is necessary to show the contrast when movie star sister Masha (Suzanne Bouchard) sweeps in with her boy-toy Spike (Joshua James Campbell.) And what a contrast it is. Helping to bridge the hemispheres is Cassandra (Isabel Monk O'Connor. Yes, there are references to Greek tragedy as well), Sonia and Vanya's housekeeper, who sees danger stalking and lurking, which naturally turns out to be the case (a good guess because when isn't danger always lurking?) At least she impressively does name names—if Hootie Pie is to be considered a name and not a Southern confection. One could legitimately challenge the inclusion of this character, embodied by a black woman, as way off the mark, but just sigh and enjoy her bizarre monologues.

Masha never comes "home," so something must be up. It could be the costume party she wants all of them to attend, held at the home down the road where Dorothy Parker killed herself. But really? Nah. Although there is quite a kerfuffle about the party and Masha dictating the costumes others will wear, she really has returned to boot Sonia and Vanya out of the house which she has been financially sustaining. Now, that is a problem, especially for two folks in their fifties who have never worked and don't even know what the minimum wage is. And they just can't leave the pond and the blue heron and Sonia's identification of herself: "I am a wild turkey"--which is a much funnier image, I suppose, than Nina's squawking, "I am a seagull," in—you guessed it—Chekhov's "The Seagull." Oh, there is also a visiting neighbor in Bucks County named Nina. And the cherry orchard! (That's an intentional nonsensical syntactical leap, folks.)

ATC and the Guthrie Theater, which co-produced this show, have done an admirable job. The cast is solid under Joel Sass' direction, the Todd Rosenthal's set is terrific and, and the other design efforts are fitting. "Vanya, Sonia et al" won the Tony for Best New Play in 2013, and why not? I guess we've really needed a crazy/good, laugh-producing story with echoes of Chekhovian despair. Sounds right to me.

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