Ever since America told England to get lost so we could all just try to be happy here, we’ve been relentlessly pursuing that happiness. In recent decades, with a fountain of self-help books designed to maximize positivity, and especially now with folks curating an image of ongoing elation on social media, the crushing quest for happiness has become a little suffocating, a little manufactured, and a lot empty.
Enter Studio Players’ production of the Tony award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a comedy that finds its genius -- and its laughs -- by dwelling on disappointments, self-pity, and personal failings. Playwright Christopher Durang masterfully spins the regrets and shortcomings of the play’s Chekhov-inspired characters into comedy gold, and director Jenny Christian and a strong ensemble make that gold sparkle.
A structural mish-mash of plot lines, themes, and references to the plays of Anton Chekhov, the play gives a wink and a nod to not taking itself too seriously, and audiences need not have any understanding of Chekhov to enjoy the show. In fact there are almost as many pop culture references, and even references to Greek drama, as there are Chekhov allusions. One gets the sense that Durang is playing with conventions, messing around, having fun and an elegant play with a bolstering message happened to cohesively emerge.
The first act establishes the familial discord among the middle-aged siblings, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha. Vanya and Sonia, who must repeatedly remind everyone she was adopted, have lived in the same house they grew up in their entire lives. They spent more than a decade of their adult lives caring for their ailing parents while Masha became a movie star and financially supported the family. After their parents died, Vanya and Sonia remained in the home, becoming “part of the furniture,” and neglecting to live their own lives. When Masha shows up in a whirl of condescending celebrity with her boy-toy Spike in tow, the gloves come off.
Jenny Christian directs the ensemble with a clever eye for situational comedy. Take the moment Spike (played with panache by Daniel Morgan), Masha’s hunky, oversexed boyfriend toys with Vanya, who is gay, by snapping a belt in his face during a “reverse strip tease.” The timing, delivery, and most importantly, the tone of the moment had the audience cackling. The play is peppered with such moments, and likewise Abby Reeve, who plays the psychic housekeeper aptly named Cassandra, is a hurricane of comic relief. “Beware Hootie Pie,” she opens the show with hyperbolic forebodings reminiscent of Harry Potter's Professor Trelawney. Gabrielle Miller is another bright spot in the production with her spirited but down to earth portrayal of aspiring young actress Nina.
With supporting characters providing a steady thread of lighter entertainment, Fred Zegelien, Allie Darden, and Diane Carter take the humor for a darker turn as Vanya, Sonia and Masha respectively. Each are afforded copious spotlight moments where their characters get to riff on their maladies. Zegelien’s frantic, impassioned rant about the loss of connection in modern society is a whirlwind of nostalgia that pokes at the modern wound of isolation among hyper connection. Darden and Carter are particularly effective foils, with the robe-sporting, make-up free, tangly haired, self-pitying Sonia butting heads with Masha’s ego-centricism, oppressively consistent and ridiculous trans-Atlantic accent, and dogged vanity.
The play cleverly escalates these conflicts via a costume party and later, a play within a play (a nod to Chekhov and many playwrights before him), it is only then that decades-old tensions begin to loosen and the family begins to congeal and heal.
The resolution comes as a satisfying surprise and with the implication that it is only by more fully acknowledging our disillusions and failings and regrets can we approach happiness.