The show: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Hartford Stage
First impressions: Throw a dart at a map and you're likely to find one theater or another in the provinces doing Christopher Durang's Tony Award-winning comedy. There's good reason for that. The play is sexy, fun and has Durang's signature sense of the absurd. But this time out there's an upbeat ending that one usually doesn't associate with the often cynical playwright of such biting satire as "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You" and "Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them."
But this time it feels like a party, and not just because the characters are off to a costume soiree at the end of the first act. In the Hartford Stage production, Durang's mash-up on Chekhovian themes (not to mention names, characters and references) takes on a playful and even sweet touch. Sure, Durang's typical loopy sensibilities, word play and pop cultural references abound but the play —- and production —- has a gentle, human feel, too, as it presents these desperate Americanized Chekhovian characters with a natural affection.
A terrific ensemble of actors under the deft direction of Maxwell Williams find one comic twist and turn after another — and often when you least expect them, which fits into Durang's parallel universe perfectly fine.
So is it a parody of a Chekhov play?: Durang did that when he was at the Yale Cabaret. This is a work of a seasoned playwright exploring the big-questions-in-life themes while remaining true to his theater of the ridiculous.
What's it about?: Vanya and Sonya are 50ish siblings living in the Bucks County home where they've cared for their ailing parents. Now alone, they're at a loss: smart and self-aware, they are full of regret and ennui, yet incapable of action. That is, until their glamorous and narcissistic movie-star sister Masha arrives with her boytoy, Spike, a hunk who thinks of himself as an actor but whose only credits are coming close to getting a role in the "Entourage" sequel.
Masha's sudden arrival stirs old sibling resentments that turn into anger when she announces she's selling the family home, leaving her brother and sister potentially homeless. But first there's a costume party to go! But things don't go as planned at first, at least for Masha, with the arrival of a young pretty neighbor, the dealings of a Cassandra-like (actually her name is Cassandra) cleaning woman, a venture into existential playwriting by Vanya and the flowering of Sonia by way of Maggie Smith in the film "California Suite."
Say what?: Don't ask — but these nutty diversions all fit into Durangland, that slightly askew world that sort of feels real close-up but is also absurdly fake at the same time, not unlike Jeff Cowie's well-worn farmhouse set with its faux forest backdrop.
The ensemble also balances that mixture of real and surreal with almost perfect pitch. Mark Nelson wears Vanya like an old slipper, holes and all. He gives the peaceful gay brother a telling, quavering insecurity that borders on breakdown — and then crosses the border in a spectacular and epic crie de coeur that is gasp-worthy. Caryn West makes Sonia's daftness make perfect sense and her solo telephone scene is both touching as it is funny.
Leslie Hendrix is simply smashing in the tricky part of Masha, keeping the audience's affections and attention through her vainglorious tirades, and keeping it true in her more vulnerable moments. David Gregory's Spike has plenty of stuff to strut, luxuriating in a kooky comic splendor in his character's absolute love of all things carnal and shallow.
As the voodoo-skilled Cassandra, Stacey Sargeant is a commanding soothsayer and comic presence and Andrea Lynn Green is innocent bliss as Nina, the straight-faced hopeful amid the hysterics, doomsayers and egotists
Who will like it? Fans of Durang, Chekhov and Speedos. Russian dramaturges. Maggie Smith.
Who won't?: Grumpy the Dwarf.
For the kids?: Teens will enjoy the loopy humor and energy but probably not get the Chekhovian connections.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: When you think you're in the middle of a Chekhov play, you just got to laugh
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot? It's interesting to see in this wild and wacky world, audiences that inclined to absurdist excursions relate to this play in major ways. Perhaps it's the baby boom audience connecting with the task of dealing with the difficulties of aging and infirm parents and the mental snaps that it causes. Or maybe it's Vanya's grand tirade against the dehumanization and messiness of a careless world. (I now find myself saying aloud, "We used to lick the stamps!" at moments of high technological anxiety. Like every day.) But I think it just may be the sweet surrender to the blue heron on the pond — and the loons in the house.
The basics: The show plays through June 22 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. in downtown Hartford. The plays runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Information at www.hartfordstage.org, 860-527-5151.
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