Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang. Directed by Matthew Penn. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Olivia Saccomanno, Mat Leonard, director Matthew Penn, Elizabeth Aspenlieder (seated), Angel Moore, Jim Frangione, Tod Randolph, Laura Kathryne Gomez (stage manager); photo: Kevin Sprague
"There are no shared memories anymore."
It is rare to have two opportunities to watch and evaluate the same play in different productions in the same season. This critical treat comes with Christopher Durang's Broadway hit, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" in this summer of 2014. I saw it in Weston, Vermont in July directed by Steve Stettler and I saw it last night at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts directed by Matthew Penn. The same play with two very different concepts, both valid and both effective. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first one it is more difficult to comment on the second one, but here goes.
There are two and a half brilliant performances on the Elayne P. Bernstein stage at Shakespeare and Company and any one of them merits a visit to this play at this time. There are also three very very good performances as well. Matthew Penn has taken the Chekhovian references very much to heart in this production and the play is studded with a sombre sobriety that is, in and of itself, rather funny. Playwright Christopher Durang has used as much Anton Chekhov mood and humor as possible in this contemporary play about discontented siblings. Masha the movie star is classically unfulfilled as a person; her brother Vanya is a closeted gay man who aspires to write a vitally important play; their adopted sister Sonia has never had a life, has aspired only to be with the man she loves who is not an appropriate choice.
In a house on a lake in Pennsylvania all three dwell for a difficult weekend together with Masha's over-sexed boy-toy Spike, an aspiring young actress named Nina, and a cleaning lady named Cassandra who lives up to her name every minute of every day. Nina is played here by Olivia Saccomanno and the performance she gives of this character is as cloying as you can get without being dull. Saccomanno balances the well written character with finely toned readings of the "play" within the play that are almost too enjoyable. As the least essential character I cannot imagine this production without this actress's interpretation.
Tod Randolph (Sonia) and Jim Frangione (Vanya); photo: Kevin Sprague
Mat Leonard (Spike) and Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Masha); photo: Kevin Sprague
Angel Moore plays the house-cleaning, voodoo wielding, psychically connected Cassandra. She is the most consistently funny performer in the play as the most consistently non-Chekhovian character in the play. If she has a function at all (and I can imagine this play without Cassandra) it is to keep the show weirdly grounded in the present. The Russian-inflected solemnity of this comedy is always being interrupted by the modern, ditziness of this character and as played here by Moore, the woman is ditzy only in her own space; she never breaks ground where her employers live. She is the atmosphere and not the air, the messenger but not the message. I loved what Moore did for her.
Mat Leonard as the hunk with the "junk" is funny and a bit surreal. Like Moore's character he bears no resemblance to the men of Chekhov's plays. Leonard does well with the controls that director Penn has imposed on him, but there is a definite loss - based on the earlier edition I saw - in the relationship between him and Vanya. Spike is not too bright, but is smart enough to know how bread gets buttered. The comedy of seduction out-of-whack is lost in this performance and that's too bad as the rest of what he delivers is just fine. This is a directorial choice and not an actor's.
Tod Randolph; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jim Frangione is a dark, sober Vanya who never has a chance to react to the gayness of Spike's seductions (they don't exist in this production). Instead he stays low-key and untroubled by what goes on around him until he loses his composure and goes on a rant that is dramatically staggering. The only thing missing (this is a Chekhov thing) is the off-stage gunshot that should follow the failure he feels as a man and as an artist. I liked his work very much, but it didn't have the bite it could have had with a different focus.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder turns in a stunning portrayal of a movie star who has to deal with the ravages of time and career changes. She plays the speeches of regret with a soap opera edge that is delightful and the romantic betrayal moments with a genuine sense of personal defeat. In her final moments in Scene 6 of the play she is a perfect woman, a perfect sister, a perfect mentor to the young. She is so perfect, in fact, that as an actress she is able to show us how an actress of extreme stature continually acts even the sincerity she feels at such moments. That is brilliant and will not be forgotten.
The finest moments, though, belong to Tod Randolph as Sonia. This actress turns in one of the most stellar performances as a woman, not scorned for she has never loved, not betrayed for she has never trusted, alone in a world in which she has always been surrounded by others. This is a type who believes that the background is her world. She is more than Chekhovian, she is biblical. Her monologue on the telephone the morning after a party was so moving, so simply and defiantly played, so internally painful that its beauty will not be easily achieved by another actress. I thought I'd seen the best possible performance of this in Weston but Randolph in Lenox has that particular world by the throat and she cannot let it go. If it were possible to go down on one knee in tribute before her I would - I think we all would.
The production for this show is agreeable and the direction of the show by Matthew Penn is fascinating in its devotion to the mood and the mindset of the man whose plays inspired the playwright here. The loss of comedic possibilities was a choice, it seems, and that loss weakens the play a hair, but not enough to not enjoy what there is in Lenox for the while. The show is selling out and it should. Get a ticket if you can.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays through September 14 on the Elayne P. Bernstein Playhouse stage at Shakespeare and Company at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.