“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”:The comedy of recognition

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Christopher Durang’s satirical mash-up of various theatrical tropes, has been playing at the Asolo Repertory Theatre since February after months of anticipation. The play won the Tony for Best Play just last year.

Long known for his jabs at theatrical clichés, Durang’s latest is littered with references to Chekhov – starting with his play’s title, named after his principal characters – famous Greek tragedies and well-known stage actors. Mixing in the obvious with the more subtle, “Vanya and Sonia” presents entertainment for those well-versed in theatre history as well as for more contemporary-focused individuals.

The play opens with siblings Vanya (Andrew Sellon), mild-mannered and sadly defeated, and Sonia (Peggy Roeder), morbidly depressed and vocally unfulfilled. The two live alone in their
countryside Pennsylvania home, where they cared for their amateur thespian parents – who named their children after famous Chekhovian characters from plays like “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya” – until their death.

Now alone, they watch animals flock toward and away from a pond just out of their window, bicker about who makes better coffee and wallow in joint resentment of their movie star sister, Masha (Anne-Marie Cusson), who lives an exciting life in New York City and provides her siblings with money to keep them afloat.

Durang is aware of the clichés each character embodies, and embraces them. Ditto the exclamatory return of Masha, whose presence – I bet you have heard this one before – disrupts dynamic and allows long-simmering resentments and feelings to surface. Masha also brings along Spike (Jefferson McDonald), her much younger, less intelligent boyfriend whose depth renders the jocks of Disney Channel sitcoms highly-complex characters.

Thrown into the mix is cleaning woman Cassandra (Tyla Abercrumbie), as in the Greek tragedy character who comically forewarns of looming disaster, and neighbor Nina (Tori Grace Hines), who seems like a direct import from the character of the same name in “The Seagull.”

Running at a little over two hours, “Vania and Sonia” favors humor and interaction over plot. The first act is strung together by the four characters preparing for a costume party, and the second is a disjointed, existential rant about modern culture’s lack of emotional connectivity.

Safe to say, one gets a lot more out of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” if they can catch the references – from understanding Sonia’s repeated whine “I am a wild turkey!” to the very
presence of outliers Cassandra and Nina – but still, a lot is left to be desired. The play definitely benefits from deliberate disjointedness and incoherence. Without a center to grab onto, audience members can sit back and enjoy Durang’s humor, admire his references and appreciate his attempts at insight.

Durang’s writing lacks purpose here, however. In playing around with storied characters, themes and even locations, there is an undeniable air of wit and cleverness – especially when his dialogue crackles – but not much to back it up.

Such a quality does not necessarily plague a written work – “Seinfeld” succeeded for being a sitcom, literally, “about nothing” – and if one views this play on those terms, it works better. It is easy to forgive deficiencies in plot and purpose when jokes and wit are abound.

And, it does not hurt that the actors in this production are uniformly excellent. In particular, Roeder is a riot, playing up Sonia’s utter lack of self-esteem with great success, and Sellon, who sells Vanya’s lengthy second-act monologue and then some.

The greater problem with “Vanya and Sonia,” unlike something like “Seinfeld,” is that its humor hinges so much on comedy of recognition. Durang’s references work fairly well, sometimes a little better than that, but it amounts to very little. He lacks the substance of Chekhov, with his parody feeling aimless and his insight unintentionally well-trodden.

A recurring theme in this play is calling back to the past, to a better time where connectivity as real and not technologically defined. Durang’s characters themselves acknowledge the unoriginality of the idea – but to recognize a cliché does not equal avoiding a cliché. And as erratic and funny and absurd as Durang is, cliché catches up to him.

He hovers between taking his characters and their relationships seriously, and making fun of them. By the end, however, he takes them very seriously – he wishes for Sonia’s happiness, for Masha’s grounding, for Vanya’s success – and, consequentially, his earlier broad strokes feel pointless and disingenuous. The so-thinly crafted relationships, at once seeming deliberately inauthentic, suddenly feel unfortunately underdeveloped.

His comedy of recognition, even, is lacking. The television series “Community,” a powerful, and very funny, examination of television tropes and recurring themes, does for the small screen much better what Durang tries to do for the stage. In “Community,” creator Dan Harmon relentlessly wrestles with ideas of forced friendships, circular timelines and elongated storytelling so present in television. It can be uproariously funny and startlingly profound.

Durang’s interpretation of the stage is not quite that. His Chekhovian references are on point, and his matching the Russian classic’s existential dread with his comedic stylings works well enough. But what about those out-there references to Angelina Jolie or Maggie Smith?

Wishing for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to be more thoughtful and inventive may be wishful thinking, and in the end, Durang’s newest plays as an intermittently funny, wildly uneven parody of tropes that morphs into a dull hearkening back to better, more civil times. Marginal sat.

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