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Chekhoviana hodgepodge

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Old Globe is much more comedy than tragedy

Martin Moran as Vanya, Candy Buckley as Masha, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia, and Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike in the San Diego Premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Martin Moran as Vanya, Candy Buckley as Masha, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia, and Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike in the San Diego Premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The first three names come from Anton Chekhov: Vanya and niece Sonia from Uncle Vanya; Masha from Three Sisters. And Spike? From the imagination of Christopher Durang which, he says, tossed the Chekhovian trio “into a blender.”

Their parents, college professors “also active in community theater,” named them after the Russian master’s stranded folk. Although they don’t resemble the originals, their situation does. Vanya and Sonia are stuck. They cared for their aging parents at their Bucks County farm house — and have yet to live.

Sister Masha has. She bears no resemblance to her namesake (gritty, forthright, subtle-witted). Instead she’s a dead ringer for Arkadina in Chekhov’s Seagull, a supremely self-centered ar-teest with questionable dramatic skills. Masha (a droll Candy Buckley) starred in “Sexy Killer,” and its four sequels. Made millions. She’s also had five husbands.

She wants to play Masha in Three Sisters. When she does a speech it’s clear that, well, maybe not. As in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the house is up for sale.

Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia, Candy Buckley as Masha, Allison Layman as Nina, and Martin Moran as Vanya in the San Diego Premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

And the estate’s a hodgepodge of Chekhoviana: a pond with a blue heron (Seagull); between eight and eleven cherry trees a la The Cherry Orchard (but, as one asks, can so few constitute an “orchard”?).

A next-door neighbor, a wide-eyed teen named Nina (sprightly Allison Layman), may have come via time machine from The Seagull. She even gives a speech about things post-apocalyptic.

By today’s standards, Vanya (soft-spoken Martin Moran) and Sonia (Marcia DeBonis, who could be more extreme) are miles from nowhere. They don’t tweet or text. They probably don’t have cable: no dish on the roof, just a rusty TV antenna.

I’ve been a Christopher Durang fan from the get-go. Few comedies are funnier than Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You and Beyond Therapy. Vanya and Sonia has all the Durang humor. At one point Vanya observes correctly that, in retrospect, the characters on the Ozzie and Harriet TV show are so bland they “seem medicated.”

Durang includes a “reverse striptease” (Tyler Lansing Weaks, whose Spike has an allergy to apparel).

To his credit, Durang writes for actors. But here he’s written mostly actor’s moments and monologues. The play zigzags toward a rant-conclusion, done beautifully by Moran, which sweeps any dramatic concerns under the rug.

In his opus, and may he write dozens more, Vanya and Sonia could prove to have been transitional: a letting go of youthful dramaturgy.

The Old Globe’s production starts with David Korins’ glorious, Bucks County stone house and patio (if the latter didn’t function as a thrust stage, the myriad rustic details would eat actors whole). You could call David Weiner’s expert lighting “tragi-comic,” since it shifts from chipper sunshine to somber shadows and back.

The performances, overall, prefer the comedy to the pain. The characters only hurt so far — and not far beyond cartooning. Twisting that approach around might make the jokes even funnier.

As would a pervasive sense that they are “performing” their roles, like set pieces, rather than investing in them.

Haneefah Wood does both in the evening’s best effort. She plays Cassandra — one of the, if not in fact the, most abused women in literature (she sees the future but no one believes her, i.e. “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” in the Iliad). Wood’s a hoot, whether making bizarre prophesies or really sticking a pin in a Snow White voodoo doll.

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Martin Moran as Vanya, Candy Buckley as Masha, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia, and Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike in the San Diego Premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Martin Moran as Vanya, Candy Buckley as Masha, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia, and Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike in the San Diego Premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

The first three names come from Anton Chekhov: Vanya and niece Sonia from Uncle Vanya; Masha from Three Sisters. And Spike? From the imagination of Christopher Durang which, he says, tossed the Chekhovian trio “into a blender.”

Their parents, college professors “also active in community theater,” named them after the Russian master’s stranded folk. Although they don’t resemble the originals, their situation does. Vanya and Sonia are stuck. They cared for their aging parents at their Bucks County farm house — and have yet to live.

Sister Masha has. She bears no resemblance to her namesake (gritty, forthright, subtle-witted). Instead she’s a dead ringer for Arkadina in Chekhov’s Seagull, a supremely self-centered ar-teest with questionable dramatic skills. Masha (a droll Candy Buckley) starred in “Sexy Killer,” and its four sequels. Made millions. She’s also had five husbands.

She wants to play Masha in Three Sisters. When she does a speech it’s clear that, well, maybe not. As in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the house is up for sale.

Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia, Candy Buckley as Masha, Allison Layman as Nina, and Martin Moran as Vanya in the San Diego Premiere of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

And the estate’s a hodgepodge of Chekhoviana: a pond with a blue heron (Seagull); between eight and eleven cherry trees a la The Cherry Orchard (but, as one asks, can so few constitute an “orchard”?).

A next-door neighbor, a wide-eyed teen named Nina (sprightly Allison Layman), may have come via time machine from The Seagull. She even gives a speech about things post-apocalyptic.

By today’s standards, Vanya (soft-spoken Martin Moran) and Sonia (Marcia DeBonis, who could be more extreme) are miles from nowhere. They don’t tweet or text. They probably don’t have cable: no dish on the roof, just a rusty TV antenna.

I’ve been a Christopher Durang fan from the get-go. Few comedies are funnier than Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You and Beyond Therapy. Vanya and Sonia has all the Durang humor. At one point Vanya observes correctly that, in retrospect, the characters on the Ozzie and Harriet TV show are so bland they “seem medicated.”

Durang includes a “reverse striptease” (Tyler Lansing Weaks, whose Spike has an allergy to apparel).

To his credit, Durang writes for actors. But here he’s written mostly actor’s moments and monologues. The play zigzags toward a rant-conclusion, done beautifully by Moran, which sweeps any dramatic concerns under the rug.

In his opus, and may he write dozens more, Vanya and Sonia could prove to have been transitional: a letting go of youthful dramaturgy.

The Old Globe’s production starts with David Korins’ glorious, Bucks County stone house and patio (if the latter didn’t function as a thrust stage, the myriad rustic details would eat actors whole). You could call David Weiner’s expert lighting “tragi-comic,” since it shifts from chipper sunshine to somber shadows and back.

The performances, overall, prefer the comedy to the pain. The characters only hurt so far — and not far beyond cartooning. Twisting that approach around might make the jokes even funnier.

As would a pervasive sense that they are “performing” their roles, like set pieces, rather than investing in them.

Haneefah Wood does both in the evening’s best effort. She plays Cassandra — one of the, if not in fact the, most abused women in literature (she sees the future but no one believes her, i.e. “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” in the Iliad). Wood’s a hoot, whether making bizarre prophesies or really sticking a pin in a Snow White voodoo doll.

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