Christopher Durang’s ‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike,’ which opened tonight at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, seems at first blush like one of many inside-theater Chekhov spoofs — including Aaron Posner’s ‘Stupid Fucking Bird,’ which kicked off the OCT season last fall.
As the lights come up on this show, we’re treated to yet another perpetually dysfunctional family that lives in a house overlooking a cherry orchard, and whose members talk about seagulls. And herons. And turkeys.
OK, yeah, we get it. And it’s all pretty funny, for a while.
But just about the time the joke starts to wear a bit thin, a real play kicks in, and somehow this group of characters (four of whom borrow their names from Chekhov plays) begins to act out a real drama within a most unlikely comic parody. Yes, Vanya and Sonia, the adoptive brother and sister played by Russell Dyball and Nancy West, are utterly miserable in their claustrophobic household. And, yes, the arrival of their sister, an over-the-hill but financially successful actress named Masha, played perfectly by Storm Kennedy, serves only to focus their familial suffering — especially because she has brought her latest little boy toy (Josh Francis) along with her luggage. And, yes, the beautiful young Nina (Hailey Henderson) becomes a lightning rod for everyone else’s unobtainable sexual desires.
But where ‘Vanya’ et al. veers away from Chekhovian futility is in the brilliant shine that its individual characters offer. Masha, the Norma Desmondish actress who controls the family pocket book, is the key role, and Kennedy is rightly given top billing in the program. Much as she did last March in “The Quality of Life” at Very Little Theatre, Kennedy dominates the stage for much of the play with her easy presence — a slatternly combination of fading sexuality and hard-edged manipulation. Masha’s fifth marriage has just ended, her movie career has hit the skids, and the theater career she dreamed of never happened. She contents herself with being insufferable to her grown brother and sister, who live, jobless and lifeless, in the family home on Masha’s movie income, where they are taken care of by a magically prescient housekeeper, the aptly named Cassandra (Donella-Elilzabeth Alston).
As good as Kennedy is, some of the best bits of the play come in sparkling eruptions from the other players. Alston, as the psychic housekeeper, uses a voodoo doll to great advantage. Francis, as the chiseled airhead Spike, had the audience, and me, in stitches with his reverse striptease, which completely captivates everyone else in the neurotic household. Henderson, as the young, starry eyed aspiring actress, is sweet and loveable.
Nancy West’s Sonia, a forgettable wallflower in Act I, suddenly emerges as a powerhouse in Act II when she begins to channel Dame Maggie Smith, the real-life actress, and begis to find her own real life.
I especially loved Russell Dyball’s extended monologue on the challenges of change. Incensed by Spike’s clueless texting during the first-ever reading of a play he’s written, Dyball’s Vanya goes off on an extended paean to the past — dial telephones, printed books and single tasking — that was the single greatest moment of the show.
This is a sweet, sharp, funny and sad tale, very well told. OCT’s Tara Wibrew directs, giving the actors plenty of room to explore this layered story, which is played out on a realistic set, showing a suburban eastern household, by Jerry Hooker.
Unlike actual Chekhov, this play wraps up tidily, and perhaps a bit too optimistically. We can forgive a happy ending, though, on account of the sharp witted suffering we enjoyed while getting there.
“Vanya” runs through June 11.