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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekov would have had nothing to write about— Sonia.
 Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike
L-R: Tod Randolph and Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Photo credit: Kevin Sprague)
There's nothing like a much praised and extended New York production and a prestigious award to insure that a play will take on a busy new life on the regional theater circuit. And so it's been for Christopher Durang's whimsical and affectionate send-up of Chekhov, aptly named for a quartet of Chekhov characters and peppered with references to his best known plays.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike quickly transferred from Lincoln Center's small Mitzi Newhouse Theater to Broadway's Golden Theater where it collected a bunch of awards, including a Tony for Best Play. Its busy after life includes one production in which the playwright himself appeared.

Now it's Shakespeare & Company's final summer 2014 offering, with is the neurotic Sonia who, shades of The Seagull's Masha, grieves for a life unlived. Elizabeth Aspenlieder plays Masha, a self-loving but unlucky in love actress. Matthew Penn who last year helmed an excellent revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane has seen to it that all the play's funny lines and quirky doings are intact to once again make the audience overlook the rather flimsy foundation stone of Durang's plot.

Nothing much happens during the play's two-day time frame. What does happen takes place in the morning room of a country home — not an outpost of Moscow but a Buck County house fronted by a pond and with a meager "orchard" consisting of a dozen cherry trees. The house is owned and financially maintained by Masha. While Masha spends little time there since she's too busy making movies and bad marriages, Sonia and her step-brother Vanya (Jim Frangione)) have lingered on in hum-drum inertia long after their parents died and ended their sixteen years of care giving duties.

The opening scene sets the Chekhovian mood with a quiet breakfast with a few smashed coffee cups to underscore Sonia's hysterical moodswings about disappointments ranging from insecurity about being adopted and despair over her loveless life. She has a loving yet also tension fraught relationship with the emotiononally restrained, wannabe playwright Vanya.

Tod Randolph, who has distinguished herself in more serious roles, proves to be a fine comedienne. Of all these somewhat cartoonish Chekhovian characters Sonia is the one with the strongest sense of reality and genuine poignancy, especially as portrayed by Randolph. She splendidly fills the shoes of Kristin Nielson, one of Durang's most frequent interpreters and this the role's originator. But Randolph is no Nielson clone but invests the part with her own persona.

While Jim Frangione delivers his lines without a stumble, he not only seems physically miscast opposite the women, but appears to be channeling David Hyde Pierce too much, and doing so without quite capturing Hyde Pierce's wonderful deadpan, "nebbishy" charisma.

The plot setup that brings Masha on one of her rare visits is a neighbor's costume party at which she plans to be the guest star dressed up as the title character of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Unlike Randolph for whom Sonia is a new kind of role, the part of Masha is made to order for Aspenlieder's proven talent for over-the-top comic roles.

Masha's entourage for the party will include Spike, the sexy boy toy version of The Seagull's Trigorin as the Prince, and her siblings as three of the dwarfs. Mat Leonard is well cast as the muscular, dim-witted stud.

The plot complications that follow see Masha's plans to be the belle of the costume party unravel along with her plans to sell the house that's been home to her siblings. The mishaps and squabbles of course enable Durang to apply his irrepressibly wild sense of humor to Chekhov's exploration of frustrated yearnings, the loss of confining but beloved homes, and sibling rivalries and misunderstandings.

everything is also open sesame for all those allusions and scenes evoking the Russian playwright's classics. While not essential to following the story, those familiar with The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and The Three Sisters are likely to appreciate Durang's quirky combination of ode and send-up most).

This not being one of those budget conscious small cast plays, there are two additions to the four title characters. To make Masha fear that her latest lover will end up as disappointing as those who have gone before, there's Nina (Olivia Saccomanno) the pretty stage struck neighbor. And leave it to Durang to mix Russian and Greek dramatic sources. He does this courtesy of a cleaning woman named Cassandra (a vivacious Angel Moore) with visionary powers to predict (and prevent) the disasters about to befall the two sisters and their brother.

The slow-as-Chekhov first act picks up steam, beginning with Sonia's refusal to play ugly-duckling dwarf to her sister's Snow White. In this, my third viewing of the play, the scene indicating that Sonia, after being the hit of the party as the glamorous wicked stepmother rather than a drab dwarf, may indeed have a less lonely and uneventful future is still the most poignant and memorable one.

The confrontation between the sisters is now as originally an overdue emotionally strong moment. The release of Vanya's heretofore reigned-in feelings the sisters cause was too long even when David Hyde Pierce turned into a bravura show stopper. While still clever, it struck me as more tiresome and long-winded here. In fairness to Mr. Frangione, the opening night audience applauded him enthusiastically.

The designers have provided excellent visuals. Patrick Brennan has created an atmospheric, nicely furnished morning room. There's enough of a hallway and pathway leading to the surrounding land to abet the characters' movements.

Costume designer Mary Readinger has dressed everyone with characterizing wit. The slinky, form fitting gown for Sonia's metamorphosis is from unkempt ugly duckling to Snow White's slinky Maggie Smith-ish stepmother is especially on the mark.

And so, while I might have been more inclined to award that best play Tony to Durang for some of his earlier plays, this is likely to be a sold out hit for Shakespeare & Company. That overdue Tony and the continued positive word of mouth during and since this play's Broadway run is sure to make Berkshirites eager to see it.

Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike
Playwright: Christopher Durang
Director: Matthew Penn
Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Masha), Jim Frangione (Vanya), Mat Leonard (Spike), Angel Moore (Cassandra), Tod Randolph (Sonia) and Olivia Saccomanno (Nina).
Set Designer: Patrick Brennan
Lighting Designer: Matthew Miller
Costume Designer: Mary Readinger
Sound Designer / Composer: Ian Sturges Milliken
Stage Manager/Light Board Operator: Laura Kathryrne Gomez
Shakespeare & Co, Elayne Bernstein Theater, Lenox MA.
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/15/14 press opening
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