In the 1980s and ‘90s, Christopher Durang was at the peak of his popularity. He’d arrived at precisely the right time, when the world of American stage comedy desperately needed an heir to the rapidly decaying Neil Simon. Durang, by comparison, was edgy and satirical. He even approached absurdist territory on occasion, while never crossing that boundary which would put him out of reach of mainstream audiences. Critics and crowds loved him. Eventually, like Simon (and all of us), Durang aged. His edge dulled. He kept his feet firmly planted in the tried-and-true tactic of poking the canon, but his zaniness gave way to a bewildered kind of peevishness. He won his only Best Play Tony for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in 2013, as one of those ersatz lifetime achievement awards we give to late-career artists who had somehow never quite gotten their full due.
Banister’s performance may well be worth the price of admission alone.…a worthwhile evening out…
In “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (let’s call it ‘VSMS’), we meet a group of middle-aged siblings, all named after Chekov characters. Vanya and Sonia share a house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (also Durang’s home) which is owned by their sister, Masha. Masha is a successful actor and provides for Vanya and Sonia financially. Aside from paying the mortgage and bills, she sends them a monthly allowance, attempting to compensate for having been absent during the decline and death of their parents. One August weekend in 2006, Masha visits the house with an announcement that a costume party is to be held that evening nearby. She brings dwarf costumes to go with her own Snow White, and also brings her current boy-toy, the 20something Spike. Spike is the typical Durang beefcake character—less puzzled than apathetic about goings on which he doesn’t understand. Prior to donning his own Prince Charming getup, Spike encounters Nina, the neighbors’ visiting niece. Like Spike, Nina is an aspiring actor. She is thrilled at the opportunity to meet her idol, Masha, who fears competition from Nina for the affection of the much younger Spike. At center is a housekeeper character, and source of VSMS’ wackiness, the psychic Cassandra. Having fallen victim to the curse of Apollo, Cassandra is constantly warning the others of impending doom, only to be ignored.
The “here’s what happens when all these people are stuck in this house” idea is very reminiscent of Durang’s “Betty’s Summer Vacation.” Unlike that earlier (better) work, though, VSMS trades darkness for dogma. It does have its laughs—plenty of them in this production—but they’re weighed down by the author’s choice of whiny didactic. In the less silly second act, Durang gives Vanya the author’s voice, in a cranky old man tirade that goes on and on and on, about the good ol’ days of the Mickey Mouse Club and postage stamps that required licking. Nathan Rosen does a great job with it, and throughout the play, in this obviously autobiographical role, but the words are a burdensome load for any actor to carry. Terri Laurino (who we loved in “Scharf’s Shorts” this past winter) is sad sack Sonia. The playwright is much kinder to this character, and Laurino is brilliant. She doesn’t merely mope, she oozes existential dread to the point where an unexpected source of optimism is met with a thoroughly believable sense of suspicion, then excitement. Laura Weeldreyer, as Masha, is imperious in the extreme. One imagines Durang piecing together the behaviors of all the insufferable off-off-Broadway actors he had known into the egotistical personage of Masha. Weeldreyer gets it and carries it over the top in the first act. In the second act, when the play’s edges come off, she finds Masha’s humanity. Spike, the semi-clad mangenue, is played with dexterity and energy by James Frost. Nina, the ingenue, is all effervescence in the hands of Sarah Schwartz. There’s wisdom without guile (hidden or otherwise) in the role, as Masha’s fears about an “All About Eve” situation are unwarranted. Melissa Banister plays Cassandra, the voodoo doll-wielding cleaning lady. Bannister’s character enjoys probably the best writing in the play, and not coincidentally, the most Durang-ish. Cassandra is a tornado of dark silliness in Banister’s delivery, and it serves as the glue holding the whole show together. Banister’s performance may well be worth the price of admission alone.
Erin Klarner’s direction does a great job of moving the action from point A to B to C. It’s hard to fathom a Durang play clocking in at over two and a half hours, and one is tempted to question pacing when that happens, but “VSMS” is not a typical Durang play. It really doesn’t seem to want to propel itself at lightning speed, though parts of it might benefit from such a pace, an editor’s scalpel, or both. When a playwright reaches the height of fame Durang held when writing this piece, who’s going to tell them to make cuts?
Spotlighters’ “VSMS” is a worthwhile evening out, to be sure. It’ll be a bit of a surprise to audiences who know Christopher Durang by his “early, funny ones,” but there’s more than enough solid work here to enjoy one of the final plays by the last important, White male playwright in America, leaving the space for new voices to emerge.
Running time: Two hours and 36 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Near-nudity and profanity.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through April 30, 2023 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets are available online. Masks are required in the lobby and theater.