— Jay Brazeau. Photo credit: David Cooper
VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE
"I'm in mourning for my life."
Masha's famous line from The Seagull captures Anton Chekhov's sublime artistry. At the turn of the twentieth century, on the eve of the Russian revolution that would overturn all their lives, his characters exhibit an exquisite blend of self-dramatizing melancholy and unintentional irony that has made the term "Chekhovian" a synonym for complex theatrical textures that are both funny and sad.
New York playwright Christopher Durang plays with Chekhovian forms but drains them of complexity in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, his much-lauded comedy getting its Vancouver premiere at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. Transposing Chekhov to twenty-first century North America, Durang wrings some good laughs from his characters. But to paraphrase a remark about Jack Kennedy once aimed at the infamous Dan Quayle in an American political debate: Christopher, you're no Anton Chekhov.
Not that he really tries to be. Durang has written a mildly highbrow sitcom for the stage, and Rachel Ditor's uneven Arts Club production milks the comedy with some success in the funny first act. But the script gets surprisingly turgid after the intermission and not even the comic genius of Jay Brazeau can make it sing.
Durang sets his play in a country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, complete with cherry orchard, shared by fifty-something siblings Vanya (Brazeau) and Sonia (Susinn McFarlen), whose university professor parents named all their kids after Chekhov characters. Sonia embraces the part, constantly lamenting her lonely, unfulfilled life. Dull, gentle Vanya is more accepting of his.
Both feel threatened when glamorpuss actress sister Masha (Anna Galvin) comes to visit with the news that she's planning to sell the family home. Turns out that Vanya and Sonia nursed their late parents through Alzheimer's while Masha worked to pay the bills she can no longer afford.
That's about it for plot. The rest is comic texture, most of it pretty goofy. Masha has brought along her boy toy, narcissistic actor-stud Spike (Robert Salvador, funny and adorable). Middle-aged Masha has her own regrets and insecurities, wishing she could have been a real stage actor instead of being famous as a nymphomaniac serial killer in a string of bad movies. She gets jealous when Spike becomes distracted by sweet, wide-eyed neighbour girl Nina (Katey Hoffman), who also aspires to be an actress. Psychic cleaning woman Cassandra (Carmen Aguirre) provides another comic voice, predicting the not-so-ominous future like her namesake in Greek tragedy.
It's telling that the play's most cartoonish characters have the best comic energy. As Masha, Galvin absolutely radiates stereotypical actorly self-regard. She will be Snow White for that evening's costume party and insists that the others--besides Prince Charming Spike--be her dwarfs. (Vanya will go as Doc, Nina as Dopey, but Sonia rebels, choosing to be the Evil Queen as played by Maggie Smith.) Masha becomes a lot less funny when Durang humanizes her in the second act, though Galvin pulls it off nicely.
Salvador's Spike is Beauty and the Beast's Gaston without the villainy. "I'm hot," he says redundantly, strutting around bare-chested in his underpants. His athletic reverse striptease is the funniest set-piece in the play. Not quite as funny, though it feels like it's meant to be, is Spike's re-creation of his nearly successful audition for Entourage 2. The set-up for this scene is bigger than the payoff it produces.
This becomes a pattern. The elaborate physical and vocal calisthenics Aguirre performs each time Cassandra is stricken with prophesy, and an overly long, dramatically flat phone call in which Sonia hears flattery and compliments for the first time in her life are other examples. Sonia is the play's dramatic focus, and McFarlen invests her character with some real poignancy. But man, that phone call needs editing!
The play's Big Speech is its most blatant example of overkill. Vanya reveals to Nina that he has written a play inspired by the playwright Konstantin in The Seagull. Everyone gathers to hear Nina read this pseudo-Chekhovian screed (spoken by a molecule in a post-apocalyptic world). But when Vanya catches Spike texting on his phone instead of paying attention, he launches into a lengthy diatribe about contemporary social disconnection versus the virtues of life in the American 1950s when everyone watched the same TV shows and people licked postage stamps. "There are no shared memories anymore," he laments.
Jay Brazeau, an actor with unlimited comic chops, struggles to make this work. The incivility of texters is a juicy target, but Vanya's is the kind of reactionary generational complaint that has made everyone under fifty hate Baby Boomers. Davy Crockett and Howdy Doody as cultural touchstones? Really?
Some of Chekhov's older characters have similar speeches about the good old days. But this overwritten, repetitious monologue makes the same point a half-dozen times as if begging for applause and, in New York, for the Tony Award that this play unaccountably won in 2013.