Last autumn Thalian Association took over 3rd Street’s Red Barn Studio from Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas. The association announced the intention of resurrecting their summer season of straight plays in the intimate space. Last fall Tom Briggs directed “Other Desert Cities” as the inaugural show. Currently, Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (VSMS), directed by Nicole Farmer, ushers in the summer season.
Though it has been a while since Durang fans have had a chance to see his work onstage locally, past productions of “Beyond Therapy,” “Baby with the Bathwater,” “Sister Mary Ignatis Explains It All For You,” and others have brought a lot of joy to audiences over the years. Durang seemed in a bit of a slump before he scored an unqualified hit, opening “VSMS” Off-Broadway in 2012. It moved to Broadway in 2013 and took the Tony for Best Play (Durang’s first Tony win).
Though an homage to the dark humor of Chekhov, “VSMS” is not a direct adaptation of any one show by the great Russian. Even if you don’t know or like Chekhov, “VSMS” is very approachable because it culls a comedy about family, sibling rivalry and a fear of aging. Durang has also finally learned how to write an ending, which might be why he finally won a Tony.
Vanya (Mike O’Neil) and Sonia (Holli Saperstein) are aging adults still living in the house of their childhood. Instead of having lives of their own, they‘ve spent the last 15 years caring for their now-deceased parents, changing their diapers, feeding them, and coping with Alzheimer’s. They have a beautiful, glamorous, movie-star of a sister, Masha (Tamera Mercer). They alternately live vicariously through her and seethe with jealousy at her exciting life.
Vanya and Sonia’s only real human interaction comes with their cleaning woman, Cassandra (Mirla Criste), who—true to her name—is a soothsayer. Though it can take a while to understand her dire warnings, such as “Beware of hootie-pie.”
The veneer of calm depression that marks their lives is disrupted by the appearance of Masha with Spike (Jacob Keohane), her sexy but dumb young hunk. Masha has just ended her fifth marriage and her career has slowed. She spirals downward in a perpetual tizzy, brought on by insecurity, fear and selfishness. Her presence exhausts everyone around her. Mercer spills an unbelievable amount of energy onstage. She nails that pretty, skinny, sexy-yet-aging disappointment thing.
Masha infuriates Sonia so much; I could feel Saperstein physically recoiling in horror every time Mercer entered. This is some of Saperstein’s best work; though it will be a long time before anything surpasses her performance in “‘Night Mother.”
Mike O’Neil as Vanya boasts one of Durang’s classically long and ridiculous monologues halfway through Act II. His ability to get through the circular and passionate soliloquy astounds. (The audience was so impressed—“We licked stamps!”—he got a round of applause when he left the stage).The subject matter hits home with many, as well. Though one of the youngest people in the audience, the frustration with a generation that doesn’t understand how a post office works or why letters are important, really speaks to me.
Criste’s Cassandra comes very close to stealing the show. Partly due to Durang’s writing, her delivery is spot-on hysterical. Cassandra is the first character with whom audiences can connect. She has warmth, compassion, joy, and most importantly a fabulous sense of comedic timing. Her voodoo dance in Act II particularly showcases her talent.
Spike and Nina (the young aspiring actress next door—remember Chekhov’s “The Seagull”?) provide interesting foils for the older generation. Hannah Elizabeth Smith as Nina yields the sweetness and innocence the role demands, but not the guile or heat from “The Seagull.” She just blows onstage as a regularly needed breath of fresh air. Her presence resonates.
Spike, on the other hand, begins dumb and ends dumber and ruder. And in all honesty, it may be an accurate portrayal of empty, shallow young men who have no education or interest in anything outside of their own beauty. Keohane’s comfort in his own skin (he wears little else for much of Act I) and his oblivious interactions succeed. He plays Spike sweetly ignorant rather than lacking a conscience.
The production design is a source of conflict. Attention to detail in the form of mulch at the edge of the stage for the yard is nice; however, a few rocky moments with lighting cues are present. I associate it most to opening-weekend jitters. Yet, the current setup of Red Barn is a little challenging sight-line wise. Chairs for the audience scatter in the shape of an “L” as part of them elevate on risers. Thus, the extreme downstage left is hard to see from the top row. I went for one of my favorite seats: the last one, front-row, house-left. I only had to sit there briefly before I realized I would miss entrances and exits from two of the doorway obstructions. The whole set could move over three feet and lose the “yard” outside the screen door without sacrificing the integrity of the writing or the performance; it would make the action easier to see. At $25 a ticket in such an intimate space, every seat should have a great view.
Chekhov’s themes and characters continue to ring true across generations and translations. I just wish Durang trusted his audience enough to not telegraph the jokes—even if his lack of faith in American intelligence is perhaps well-founded. Either way, the show is funny and brings a solid evening of theatre to Red Barn Studio.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Red Barn • 1122 S. 3rd St.
Fri.-Sun., June 6th-21st , 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25 • thalian.org/red-barn or (910) 251-1788