Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike review – Chekhovian comic curio

Ustinov, Bath
Strong performances buoy up a lightweight story about characters fated to fulfil the destinies of their fictional namesakes

I find it mildly astonishing that this piece won the 2013 Tony award for best play. For much of its duration, Christopher Durang’s drama seems a campy comedy depending on Chekhovian tropes and showbiz allusions. But suddenly, in the second half, Durang delivers two extended monologues that demonstrate his skill as a writer and lift the piece to another plane.

The 57-year-old Vanya and his adopted sister, Sonia, appear fated to fulfil the destinies of the Chekhov characters after whom they are named. Their listless life in the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is briefly illumined by the arrival of another sibling, Masha – a fading star of stage and screen who not only has a young lover, Spike, in tow but also invites them all to a costume party.

Lewis Reeves, Rebecca Lacey and Aysha Kala in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Lewis Reeves, Rebecca Lacey and Aysha Kala in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photograph: Nobby Clark

The skimpy plot is stuffed with Chekhov references as Sonia announces, “I am a wild turkey,” as opposed to a seagull, and hymns an imagined cherry orchard. Having tried one’s patience, Durang then rewards it by invoking a genuine Chekhovian theme: the dramatic effect of a visitor upon the visited.

The play depends heavily on the performers and, happily, Walter Bobbie’s production boasts some fine actors. Janie Dee beautifully captures Masha’s preening self-regard and desperate desire to defy the years; having dressed as Snow White for the party, she finds herself mistaken for Norma Desmond. Rebecca Lacey shows the self-pitying Sonia’s transformation by adopting, for the party, the voice and manner of Maggie Smith in California Suite; Lacey makes something genuinely touching of the second-act scene in which she takes a phone call from an unexpected admirer.

Having little to do initially, Mark Hadfield savours Vanya’s sustained paean to the 1950s. Sentimental nostalgia is avoided with the sharp reminder that it was also a decade in which to be gay was to be stigmatised. Michelle Asante as a psychic cleaner and Lewis Reeves as a young buck provide good support and, even though it is a lightweight play, it finally shows that Durang gets Chekhov’s point: drama is about the growth from ignorance to knowledge.

• At the Ustinov, Bath, until 6 July.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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