3 of 5 stars.
I really wonder sometimes, is contemporary theatre mostly for older people?
Even disregarding the expensive ticket prices of most modern plays, at times, thematically modern plays seem such an exclusive entertainment for baby boomers. Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Tony Award winning best play of 2013, comes to Chicago with the full Goodman Theatre touches of exceptional casting, direction and production design, but somehow there is something rather underwhelming about the experience of this play.
Parts are undeniably funny and down-right silly, yet, for something so praised for its New York and previous stage incarnations, you’d expect superb comedy. Durang’s play is a modern, ever so self-consciously styled parody of several elements of the plays of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov; it’s cute, but rather superficial. And for younger playgoers or those not so versed in early 20th Century world drama, they will likely miss much of the Chekhov references and nuanced humor of this play—even the significance of the commonly used Chekhovian names of the three of the four titled characters.This tale concerns two middle aged siblings, Vanya (Ross Lehman) and Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), who live in their late parents’ Pennsylvania home, where they have spent much of the last decade or so tending to their ailing parents’ needs as caretakers. Like characters in many of Chekhov’s social comedies, Vanya and Sonia are presently aimless, unemployed, bored and looking with angst at their 50s with not much future prospects. One says in the opening scene, “I had a bad dream last night. I dreamt I was 52 and wasn’t married.” Both complain about having too much free time. They look out from their back patio at their pond and cherry trees, which are referred to as their “cherry orchard.”
Their other sister, Masha (Mary Beth Fisher), a successful film actress, has been self-focused on her career and has provided financial support from afar. But that’s all about to change. Like in many Chekhov tales, family financial times are getting tougher. Masha arrives in jeans, high heels and with a young lover named Spike (Jordan Brown). She needs to sell the house and all will need to move on.
Vanya and Sonia’s housekeeper, the boisterous Cassandra (E. Faye Butler), takes a rather instant dislike for Masha and will do whatever it takes to help her employers, including setting voodoo-like spells on the evil that Masha brings. Director Steve Scott manages the pace of this two act play with professional finesse and comedic effectiveness. Scott’s leads, Fisher, Lehman and Brooks are all wonderful at comedy.
In the second act, after rather spiteful banter against Masha, everyone goes to a neighbor’s costume party, Vanya then goes on a humorous, but obvious tirade about the vacuous lifestyle of so many self-absorbed young people, with their electronic connections to everything superficial, who can’t appreciate the simpler things. She makes multiple references to 50s and 60s television, which most Gen Xers will have no reference to. And critics of yesteryear used to be so critical of Neil Simon, when they felt many of his most popular plays were like superficial “cotton candy” entertainment.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues on its summer run at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, in Chicago’s Loop Theatre district, until July 26. For ticket information go online at GoodmanTheatre.org/Vanya or call the theatre’s ticket office at 312 443-3800.