Let's just say up front that I'm a whore for references. Toss a few movie lines into a conversation, namedrop some playwrights, or expound upon 80s television shows, and I'm putty in your hands. All this makes me predisposed to liking Christopher Durang's Tony Award-winning new play, Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, which opened last night in its first off-Broadway production (following its Lincoln Center world premiere) at Berkeley Rep. It is a proud, brazen, glorious mashup of Chekhov themes and simulacra of Chekhov characters with nods to Greek tragedy, Entourage, Neil Simon, Hollywood, Molière, Snow White, Ozzie & Harriet, and parkour.
The premise centers on a brother and sister, Vanya and Sonia (Anthony Fusco and Sharon Lockwood), who like their Chekhovian namesakes are despondent and isolated in a home they do not own in a bucolic landscape. It's the home they grew up in, and where they both cared for their two elderly parents through Alzheimers etc. for fifteen years, and they now find themselves in middle age with little to show for their lives. Their parents had been professors and local community theater actors, and named them after the famous characters of Uncle Vanya. Enter their successful Hollywood actress sister Masha (Lorri Holt), named for the character in The Three Sisters who's always longing for escape, who owns the house but rarely visits. She arrives with her attention-hungry, twentysomething boy toy Spike (Mark Junek) in tow, and Spike immediately commences flirting with everyone, and removing his clothes.
Entering the mix to stir up various conflicts and emotions are the housekeeper Cassandra (Heather Alicia Simms), who has prophetic powers like her Greek namesake; and visiting neighbor and aspiring actress Nina (Caroline Kaplan), who just coincidentally shares a name with Chekhov's ingenue in The Seagull who tortures the older, fading actress Irina. Needless to say Masha hates her immediately.
Masha reveals she needs to sell the house for financial reasons, only deepening the depression and resentment of Sonia and her brother who reveals to Masha for the first time that he's gay and then has trouble keeping his eyes off of Spike. All four of them, along with Nina, attend a costume party at a neighbor's house that night (this is where the Snow White stuff comes in), and hilarity ensues.
But the crux of Durang's work lies in how he updates the despairing themes of Chekhov's plays the pains of aging, the horror of change, loneliness, finding purpose, and the infuriating yet inspiring optimism of youth and overlays his own brilliant humor and anxieties about the modern world. Durang is a master at transitioning from broad, stylized, absurdist humor to incredible pathos, and it's no wonder that this play won him his first Tony Award. The central, scene-stealing monologue comes in the final act, from Vanya, and it's where we get to see local theater vet Anthony Fusco really show off his passion and rage. Infuriated by seeing Spike busy texting during a Seagull-esque house performance of Vanya's play-within-the-play, he goes off, and a tidal wave of generational frustration at the speed of change, the laziness of language, the inescapable-ness of technology, and the doom of climate change flows forth. It is, admittedly, not unlike Jonathan Franzen's recent diatribe on similar topics, but more good-humored. The saddest line, perhaps, is when Vanya is lamenting the fact that you'd never seen someone on TV anymore like Bishop Sheen, a Catholic priest who had a weekly program starting in the 1950s, and it's sad not because the world needs religion but because he was so articulate. "There's not much in the world that's articulate anymore," Vanya says.
The best performance besides Fusco's comes from Sharon Lockwood as bitter, yet comically forlorn Sonia. Lockwood mugs like a silent film star, and when she gets to dress up and pretend she's Maggie Smith in California Suite, she steals the show. Holt is imperious enough as Masha and has good timing, but she didn't always have the bigger-than-life stage presence the part demanded. Meanwhile, Junek is perfectly gregarious as Spike, more than comfortable with his clothes off, and does a hilarious "audition" monologue in Act I that's not to be missed. Simms takes a scene or two to rev up as Cassandra, but she's pretty hilarious as well.
The direction of this production by Richard E.T. White felt too conventionally stage-y at times, with a lot of center-stage monologues and broad gestures around a squared-off living room set by Kent Dorsey, but he keeps the comic pace up and all told, the thing feels tight.
Berkeley Rep certainly scored a coup in bringing this great play to the Bay Area so quickly after the close of its Broadway run in August, and this production does it justice, and then some. It will keep you smiling, laughing, and ticking off funny references from start to finish, and still nails a level of poignancy that many more serious plays never achieve. It's the lightness that lifts the heavy that's Durang's greatest talent. "The characters in Chekhov feel so doomed, like they could never get what they wanted," he said recently in an interview for the Chronicle. "In my play, there was a contentment there that surprised me. ... It's interesting that an American version of Chekhov, through me, isn't as despairing."
Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike plays through October 20, pending any extensions. Get tickets here. And if you're under 30, you get half off.