Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed – 15th November 2021
“Durang’s gift for witty one liners is alive and well in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but this particular comedy has a fin de siécle feel about it”
Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is aging poorly—rather like its main characters. This nod-to-Chekhov mash up of (mostly) The Seagull and Uncle Vanya does provide moments for the actors, especially in the second half. Audiences who go expecting vintage Durang at this latest revival at the Charing Cross Theatre in London, however, may be disappointed. And in truth, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is the sort of show that plays better in New York, where it won a Tony Award in 2013.
In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, drama comes to Bucks County, Pennsylvania—and sadness, punctuated by moments of hilarity, ensue. Durang has freely adapted Chekhov’s characters—Vanya is gay; Sonia is his adopted sister, and Masha is their successful, but aging, movie star sister. After spending years nursing their elderly parents, Vanya and Sonia are finally free of their responsibilities—but that simply reminds them that their lives are now pointless. Into this existential void comes Masha, accompanied by her much younger lover Spike. Adding more drama and intrigue, are Cassandra, a prophecy ranting cleaner, and Nina, a starstruck young neighbour. The plot is slight—revolving around Masha’s threats to sell the house, Nina’s desire to be an actress (much like the character she is named for in The Seagull) and Vanya and Sonia’s attempts to make their lives more interesting. For Sonia, this is an opportunity to channel Maggie Smith in California Suite at a costume party. For Vanya, it is a reading of the play he has written in imitation of Konstantin’s in The Seagull. Spike is there to strip off his clothes at every opportunity, (he is also a wannabe actor) and be the exhibitionist cat among the pigeons.
Durang’s characters, like Chekhov’s, struggle with living trivial lives. They are bitter, and/or bewildered, having realized that while they were simply existing, life (and love) has passed them by. This is true even for Masha who once dreamed of acting in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. (She’s a veteran of five failed marriages, and countless franchise horror films.) In the first half of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike this means coffee cups of frustration hurled at the walls. The second half does live more satisfyingly—Vanya has a wonderful monologue in which he celebrates a now vanished America of the fifties. The plot still follows a depressing trajectory, however. Masha loses Spike to her (younger) personal assistant; Sonia has to make the emotionally loaded choice to continue channeling Maggie Smith if she wants to date a gentleman caller she met at the costume party, and Vanya contemplates getting a job at the local pharmacy. The play as a whole is not kind to its characters.
In the Charing Cross Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the actors make the best of this material. Rebecca Lacey is particularly enjoyable as Sonia. She steals the scenes wherever she can, whether it is as downtrodden Sonia, or scorching Maggie Smith on her way to an awards ceremony. It’s a tough act to follow, but Michael Maloney as Vanya and Janie Dee as Masha provide solid comic support as her siblings. Each has a breakout moment when we get to see their fears of a meaningless future stretching out before them. “I’m worried about the future, and I miss the past,” says Vanya, and oddly enough, this is more true in 2021, than in 2013. Sara Powell has her share of scene stealing moments as the doomsayer Cassandra. She also has wonderful comic timing. Lukwesa Mwamba (Nina) and Charlie Maher (Spike) manage to be likeable and sympathetic despite the shortcomings of their roles. Add to the performances a finely observed set design by David Korins, stylish costumes by Emily Rebholz, and solid dialect coaching by Salvatore Sorce, and you could easily imagine yourself to be sitting in a Broadway theatre.
Durang’s gift for witty one liners is alive and well in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but this particular comedy has a fin de siécle feel about it. Go for the laughs, but try to avoid feelings of existential dread on the way home.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Marc Brenner
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Charing Cross Theatre until 8th January
Also reviewed at this venue this year: