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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

This play abounds in comic riffs on Chekhov, but it also taps the vein of human frailty in his work

Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., June 20, 2014

The Chary Orchard: (l-r) Lauren Lane's Sonia, Jaston Williams' Vanya, and Beth Broderick's Masha
The Chary Orchard: (l-r) Lauren Lane's Sonia, Jaston Williams' Vanya, and Beth Broderick's Masha
Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
www.zachtheatre.org
Through June 22
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

A sweet silence opens this Christopher Durang comedy: the quiet of early morning as a brother and sister sit before a picture window gazing at the pond behind their Pennsylvania country house. There's a sound, though, that those of us watching the siblings can't hear: the loud ticking inside their heads. For you see, while it's early in the morning, it's late in life for these two. They're keenly aware of the clock winding down, of the things in life they haven't done and cannot have, of the Chekhovian chill that comes with seeing the world one knew and treasured whirl away. So all it takes is the smallest of breaks in the duo's daily routine – him fetching his own coffee instead of letting her bring it to him – for the serene scene to shatter (along with a couple of coffee cups), exposing all their autumnal anxieties just in time for a visit from their affluent actress sister, who wants to sell the home right out from under them.

As you've no doubt deduced given the play's title, the above shout-out to Chekhov was hardly gratuitous. This Vanya and Sonia and Masha – christened by parents with more regard for Russian drama than their brood's welfare among taunting classmates – are wrestling with the same conflicts and life issues as their namesakes and fellow figures in Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. This is Durang having a high old time riffing on old Anton, mashing up his plays' plots and characters, and layering them onto aging baby boomers in the 21st century – and those theatregoers most familiar with Chekhov will most delight in the teasing references. But Durang is doing more here than making in-jokes for the drama-lit set; he's tapping that very vein of human frailty that has us still flocking to Chekhov's plays more than a century after they were penned. As ridiculous as the characters can be – and these AARP candidates boast streaks of childishness to shame a kindergartener – they're touchingly vulnerable in their disconnection from life, their sense of the world spinning past them.

So they are in this Zach Theatre production, anyway. Lauren Lane's Sonia is a slump-shouldered lump of beige until she attends a costume party dressed as, get this, Maggie Smith in the film of Neil Simon's California Suite, where she sparks to glittering life. But when an admirer from that party calls to ask her out, she pauses, her face expressing shock and a sense of being undeserving, and it seizes the heart. Jaston Williams' Vanya maintains a soft-spoken equanimity even through his sister Masha's monstrous demands for attention (Beth Broderick, wearing her air of entitlement like a couture chapeau). But at the sight of Masha's boy toy Spike (an enthusiastically vacuous Michael Glavan) texting while Vanya reads aloud his own play, the older man shatters like the first scene's coffee cup and unleashes a tirade about our society's loss of shared experience. It's an operatic harangue and blisteringly funny – boasting how we were once connected by even stupid TV shows like The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet – but Williams fuels it with yearning, a desire to recover something of value from the past, and it reaches past the funny bone to someplace deeper.

Abe Reybold's debut as Zach associate artistic director mines a satisfying load of Durangian laughs, but the more notable achievement may be the show's comparable number of Chekhovian sighs.

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