Riotous comedy, with a Chekovian twist.
By Bruce Goodrich
The venerable Costa Mesa Playhouse is in its 58th season. Under Michael Serna’s artistic direction, the Playhouse continues to produce a wide range of compelling, challenging work, including Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” and Christopher Durang’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”
Opening on October 20th is another Durang play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” directed by Jeff Paul. The play was commissioned by and premiered at The McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2012, followed by an Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons. It transferred to Broadway in 2013. That same year, it won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, among other awards.
Mr. Durang is one of our preeminent American comic playwrights, although his comic style can have decidedly sharp, absurdist, cynical undertones, laced with irony concerning the human condition, particularly tuned into the oddities of family dynamics.
“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” (1979) was Durang's watershed play as it brought him to national prominence when it won him—the Obie Award for Best Playwright (1980) at the age of 32. Other notable works include “Beyond Therapy” (1981), “The Actor’s Nightmare” (1981), “Baby with the Bathwater” (1983), “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” (1985), “Laughing Wild” (1987), and “Betty’s Summer Vacation” (1999).
Critics praised “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” as a humorous adaptation of renowned Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s (1860-1904) themes, but it doesn't require familiarity with Chekhov. According to Durang, "My play is not a Chekhov parody... I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender." The story takes place at a country house (a common location for many of Chekhov’s plays) in Bucks County, PA, and revolves around the relationships of three middle-aged, single siblings. Two of them, the stilted, jobless Vanya and Sonia, named after Chekhov characters by their now-dead parents, theater enthusiast professors, live together, and antics ensue during a visit by the third, Masha (also Chekhov named), an insecure movie star who owns the house and supports them. She is accompanied by her very young, very handsome, dimwitted lover, and aspiring actor, Spike. Another character is added to the mix, Nina, the neighbor’s pretty, young niece, who catches the eye of Spike, arousing Masha’s envy. There is also a dour, prognosticating housekeeper, Cassandra, akin to the groundskeepers and servants of Chekhov. A very funny roundelay of competition, seduction, charade, rivalries, secrets, and lies begins, culminating in Masha threatening to sell the house.
Much of Durang's style can be attributed to the aesthetic of black comedy, a style of humor that offers a fatalistic view of life, along with absurdist elements, which turn perceptions on their head through parody and excess. Durang’s themes include narcissism, the strangulating nature of family ties, sexual disorientation, and maintaining individual identity. While Durang's use of these blended genres and his criticism of many social institutions might appear overly cynical at times, he states:
"... when I say everyone is crazy that means it's a very bad day where the amount of crazy people in the world has spread out to the entire universe and it doesn't seem possible to cope with anything... I think we're all neurotic.”
Durang’s plays are a particular favorite of Artistic Director Serna, and he felt the play would be a good fit for the current season, based upon the success of ‘Bette and Boo,’ also directed by Mr. Paul.
“I've always thought of Durang as one of our finest contemporary playwrights of comedy. His work is clever, difficult, and delightful. We had wanted to produce another play of his ever since ‘Bette and Boo.’ As I was assembling the season, a common theme of family and dysfunction began to reveal itself. I thought ‘Vanya and Sonia....’ exemplified this characteristic. It's a shame his work isn't revived as much these days; he has an incredible catalogue of plays.”
Director Paul was faced with a happy problem by having a wide range of excellent choices at auditions for actors for the play.
“There’s a particular kind of alchemy at work when casting a play. Durang’s characters can be eccentric and quirky, so it was nice to have multiple choices for each character, not only to serve the play but to assemble the most ‘complementary’ group of actors possible.”
Mr. Paul parallels the play to a contemporary drawing room comedy with Chekhovian ennui. A story of how family concurrently propels and holds us back. The absurdist, off-kilter qualities are firmly based in reality, and there is an ‘avant-garde’ play-within-a-play sequence, alluding to Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” which allows the characters, arraying themselves for this ‘theatrical,’ to exhibit better versions of themselves, leading to an almost touching redemption by the central play’s end, in unique, unsentimental, Durang-style. In rehearsals, the actors have been open to discovery and taking risks with Durang’s singular use of language and subtle shifts of tone, which can result in hilarious outcomes.
VANYA “We had telephones, and we had to dial the number by putting our index finger in a round hole representing 2 to 0. If the number was 909-9999, it could take hours just to dial the number. We had to have PATIENCE then. And we used to lick postage stamps. It was unpleasant, but it had to be done.”
Bruce Goodrich is a scenic and costume designer, with many NYC, SoCal and regional credits, as well as being an educator, actor and writer. He is the screenwriter for “Mapplethorpe,” starring Matt Smith, developed at Sundance, and directed by Ondi
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
Costa Mesa Playhouse
661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa, CA 92627
October 20 - November 12, 2023
(949) 650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com