‘Vanya and Sonia': Chekhov revisited with laughter, more

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Anthony Fusco (Vanya), Lorri Holt (Masha), and Mark Junek (Spike) — l to r — star in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike — a 2013 Tony award winner for Best Play making its first regional appearance at Berkeley Rep — combines merriment and literacy with a tinge of sadness. It’s a complex balance that three-time Obie Award-winning playwright, Christopher Durang, (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, The Marriage of Bette & Boo) pulls off with aplomb, as director Richard E.T. White (Berkeley Reps’ Otherwise Engaged, Dancing at Lughnasa), and a talented cast bring Durang’s witty and wise words to life.

Durang weaves theatrical themes, most notably from Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, to create this modern-day version of a dysfunctional family facing the sale of their beloved home and the evaporation of their once bright futures.

As the play begins, Vanya (well acted by Anthony Fusco) and Sonia (excellent Sharon Lockwood) are dressed in their pajamas, likely their attire for the last 15 years. The live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the large country house they have spent their entire lives. Even as adults, they remained at home and cared for their parents until they died. Vanya and Sonia wallow in their boredom, depression, and hopelessness.

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Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo: kevinberne.com

Adding to their gloom, their housecleaner Cassandra (sparkling Heather Alicia Simms) haunts them with scary predictions of doom and disaster. Cassandra’s magnificent prognostications include passages from Shakespeare and Greek choruses, as well as funny 21st-century slang.

To the cast of characters enters the third sibling, Masha (terrific Lorri Holt), a self-centered movie actress of a certain age, and her latest young thing, hunky airhead Spike (funny Mark Junek). Spike, definitely an anti-Chekhovian character, literally bounces off the walls, in love with his youth and his body, too vapid to understand his own vapidity. Yet, his gusto and vigor are envied by all.
Tension among the family erupts as Masha announces that she is selling the family home. She complains about the financial burden of supporting the house and her siblings, while the stay-at-homes resent their lost years.

Nina (lovely Caroline Kaplan), the fresh and amiable girl next door cum aspiring actress, enters the household bringing much needed admiration for Masha, encouragement for her ”Uncle” Vanya and youthful enthusiasm for all.

Reiterating the Chekhovian theme, Vanya rants about his opposition to change (yes, cell phones are mentioned), his yearning for an imagined uncomplicated past and his fear of the future. Using a stream-of-consciousness technique, the fabulous speech veers between whimsy and pathos, encapsulating Vanya’s quandary about how life should be lived.

Happily, Durang is not Chekhov, and the ultimate message of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is one of hope.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is more than the sum of its parts, with theatrical allusions, witticisms and physical comedy blending to create a wonderful night at the theater. The audience at the preview I attended laughed aloud throughout the play and jumped to a standing ovation at the end. Perhaps they thought about the darker comedic aspects of it afterwards.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is playing at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013.

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