Mystics and movie stars: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike strikes the right undertones

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Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike tells a late coming-of-age story through Chekhovian absurdity at Live Arts. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike tells a late coming-of-age story through Chekhovian absurdity at Live Arts. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

In the sunroom of a manor home in Bucks County Pennsylvania, brother Vanya and adopted sister Sonia are sighing back and forth. The interior of the home is lovely and laden with books, the house is flanked by trees on either side, and the idyllic indoor porch offers two wicker chairs and a chaise lounge, ideal for contemplating the imaginary lake.

You get the impression Vanya and Sonia have been contemplating for a few decades too long. They wear matching shuffle-worthy house slippers and unfit-for-company lounge clothes, and each looks exhausted from the weight of so much relaxation.

This is the dead-end of boredom and middle age, folks, where a cup of coffee becomes a hair trigger for breakdowns.

As if to justify the ennui that comes with being an unmarried, permanently unemployed 52-year-old, Sonia casts around for problems. “I can pine [for you] if I want to,” she tells Vanya, after he reminds her he’s gay and, you know, her brother. She pitches a couple of teacups and blames it on her manic depression.

Vanya, for his part, keeps level and steady, a quiet observer who lobs the occasional tease but quickly soothes his frazzled sister’s nerves. (When Sonia reminds him their lives are over, he agrees with patient resignation.)

Sonia laments the years they lost caring for their dying parents until Cassandra, their cleaning lady, appears to warn them about the future. Wearing acrylic nails and audacious colors, she recites wide-eyed prophesies of doom that blend pop culture references with prose from The Fall of Troy. The siblings, of course, ignore her.

The real flurry of activity starts when their movie star sister, Masha, appears, bringing with her a boy toy named Spike and the perfect excuse to revive childhood rivalry.

Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony winner for Best Play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike taps a lot of themes without laying hard claim on any. It’s about navigating family dynamics when two sisters still grapple for the spotlight. It’s about the fear of aging and nostalgia for a lifestyle that felt so perfect compared to reality. It’s about misremembering the past as a place of limitless potential and relearning that the chance to start over—and survive—is always closer than we think.

But more than anything, this show is a comedy in which nothing very dramatic happens, and what I loved about Live Arts’ production was its ability to keep it real.

It’s funny and well-paced, with just enough tension to string you along, and each character becomes increasingly human (and delightfully ridiculous).

As Vanya, the show’s straight man and presumable Durang doppelgänger, Bill LeSueur observes with the sort of the unruffled tolerance reserved for patient parents. This is the guy who agrees to meet well-heeled neighbors dressed as Doc, the dwarf from Snow White, and LeSueur (who off-stage is C-VILLE’s creative director) gives his character surprising tenderness beneath the layers of dry humor.

Linda Zuby manages to give self-conscious Sonia confidence blended with younger sibling neediness, not to mention a hysterically spot-on impression of Maggie Smith. And Geri Schirmer infuses Cassandra with scene-stealing flair, sort of like a gum-snapping, mall-loving Jersey-based clerical assistant cum soothsayer.

Jen Downey makes Masha the perfect target for double-edged humor when she swoops on stage full of leading lady swagger and Hollywood pretension. “Sexy Killer really changed my life,” she says to her siblings, with award ceremony-worthy dramatic presence. “It took me from being a respected actress to being a global celebrity. And there is a difference.” She veers from narcissism to insecurity seamlessly and manages to raise all the competitive hackles inherited as a child.

Born to Chekhov-worshipping intellectual parents—professors who loved to perform Greek tragedy in community theater (which Sonia calls “a bad idea,” ha ha ha)—these three adult children are a tangle of thwarted dreams for which they can’t blame anyone but themselves. The play runs its course through a sort of growing-up story, inspired in part by the contrast of their self-focused mindset with the appearance of two youthful bystanders. Spike, played by T.J. Ferguson, loves to strip to his skivvies and lunge around with theatrical flourishes befitting a young man “who almost got cast in ‘Entourage 2.’” Ferguson’s version is perfectly self-contented, preening and beautiful and ready to throw his clothes (repeatedly) at poor dumbstruck Vanya.

Vanya is encouraged, however, by Spike’s foil, a neighbor and aspiring stage actress named Nina, who brings the brother (accused of Pollyannaism by Sonia) a breath of youthful optimism. Played by Lauren Lukow, Nina is all that’s right with the younger generation, at least insofar as Spike is all that’s bad, so it’s no surprise that Masha finds her hideously lovely and demands that she wear a dwarf costume, too.

But that’s the heart of what makes this show special: The ingénue must tone down her loveliness, not suffer some tragic end. Though Durang’s script pulls various elements from a number of Chekhov plays, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike doesn’t lurch into depression. Regrets? Sure, these characters have had a few, and not too few to mention, but the drama isn’t needlessly high.

Instead, it’s a delicious diversion, an amusing look at how time may (or may not) change things. The show’s climax revolves around the ping of a text message. Not the words of the text, mind you, but the insufferable rudeness of texting in particular instances (like, say, a theater). That’s a relief in a world of too much much-ness, when climate change and reality TV herald doomsday. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike looks at it all through the lens of the absurd, lancing anguish with dry humor and the common turns of hope.

Maybe community theater shouldn’t do Greek tragedy. It’s awfully nice to see something that looks so familiar up there.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is onstage at Live Arts through March 28.