The cast clockwise from top left: Jenna Cole (Sonia), Tim Bagley (Vanya), Pamela J. Gray (Masha), Jose Moreno Brooks (Spike), Svetlana Efremova (Cassandra) and Lorena Martinez (Nina.)
Underneath the sibling rivalries, literary allusions and zany antics that make up Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a very sincere theme emerges: Change is hard, and sometimes it sucks.
In his Tony Award-winning comedy, master of absurdism Christopher Durang gives us three 50-something siblings who are comically frozen in time. Vanya and Sonia, comfortably ensconced in their family home in lovely Bucks County, Penn., cling to a rigid routine to give their days shape. When Vanya has the temerity to pour his own coffee one morning, Sonia responds with a meltdown. “I have two pleasant moments every day in my life,” she declares, “and one of them is bringing you coffee.” Two broken coffee cups later, they both sigh and settle in to wait for the blue heron to appear by the backyard pond, as it does every morning. Sonia pines reflexively, Vanya worries about the weather, their cleaning woman predicts attendant doom, and nothing changes.
By contrast, their sister Masha’s globetrotting existence is a whirlwind of excitement, filled with glamorous parties and movie shoots in exotic locations. “I can’t help if I’m beautiful and intelligent and talented and successful, can I?” she asks Vanya with characteristic modesty. But as an actress of, ahem, undetermined age, she’s staring down the wrong end of a career in a youth-obsessed profession, desperate to stay relevant and avoid being relegated to the dreaded “grandmother” casting pool.
Sure, they all hate their lives… but in a fun way. So when Masha’s weekend visit goes awry and she announces plans to sell the family home, several decades’ worth of repression are about to hit the fan—and change will come, whether anyone wants it or not.
Throughout his career, Durang has excelled at hilariously absurdist treatments of deadly serious subjects: torture, hypocrisy, homophobia. In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, he turns his signature madcap wit on the trials of growing older in a changing world, underpinning the comedy with a sincere reflection on how we remember the past and how we think about the future.
He turns to the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov for inspiration as well as humor (not to mention the names of most of his characters). Chekhov’s protagonists belong to the intelligentsia, the class of cultural elites in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Tsar Alexander II’s abolition of serfdom in 1861 had reordered the social hierarchy, leaving the intelligentsia mired in a permanent identity crisis in a country torn between tradition and revolution. As depicted by the playwright, they’re a stagnant bunch: well-educated, but confined to isolated country estates; full of ideas, but lacking in motivation or practical ambition. As one of Chekhov’s Three Sisters opines: “In this town, knowing three languages is an unnecessary luxury. Not even a luxury, but some sort of an unneeded appendage, like a sixth finger. We know a lot of superfluous things.” (Okay, you got me. That’s a Kourtney Kardashian quote. Wrong three sisters.)*
Some few Chekhovian characters react to their current paralysis by looking to the future: in Three Sisters, Colonel Vershinin anticipates that “in two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful” (although an audience should probably take his bombastic speeches with a grain of salt); in The Cherry Orchard, the businessman Lopakhin puts rather more effort into effecting change, embracing shifting economic tides and planning to turn an archaic country estate into a profitable vacation destination. But far more of Chekhov’s characters find a refuge from the problems of the present in their memories of the past. Olga, Masha, and Irina, the titular three sisters, are consumed by fantasies of their childhood in Moscow, dreaming of the day they return, even as it becomes increasingly evident to the audience that none of them will ever take that step. Madame Ranevskaya, the owner of the cherry orchard, ignores her impending financial ruin in favor of reliving an idyllic past, and loses her estate as a result of her unwillingness to consider “vulgar” commercial solutions to her present predicament. Even when the characters are able to articulate what is lacking in their lives, they lack the wherewithal to realize those ambitions—and that gulf between desire and action, fantasy and reality, is a source of both humor and pathos for the playwright. (Although Chekhov described his plays as comedies, one might be forgiven for finding his tales of unfulfilled dreams and stagnant societies to be, well, sad.)
A century and change later, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia, educated but comfortably indolent, translate the dilemmas of the late 19th-century Russian intelligentsia to our time. Fluent in highbrow literary references but devoid of practical skills, their reality is at once stable and precarious, and they watch in befuddlement as the world outside their walls becomes faster, younger and scarier. (“They strip to their underwear right in front of everybody,” says Masha, attempting to explain millennials to her siblings.) They may hate their stagnant, unfulfilling lives, but those lives are theirs to hate—and Masha’s threat of selling the house quickly escalates into an existential dilemma for them.
Durang sympathizes with their predicament, even as he pokes gentle fun at their neuroses. He has described Vanya as a version of himself who was never encouraged to leave home and pursue the arts—one who instead spent decades in a state of stasis, fretting about a changing climate and a degrading culture. At a pivotal moment in the play, Vanya lets loose with a poignant catalogue of the cultural touchstones of his own childhood, from licking stamps to wearing Davy Crocket-style coonskin caps to the national trauma that Old Yeller caused. “The ’50s were idiotic, but I miss parts of them,” he admits, bemoaning the isolation and cultural fragmentation he sees as harbingers of the present.
If Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike were a truly Chekhovian play, it might end there, with Vanya torn between nostalgia for the past and dread of the future. But unlike his 19th-century Russian precursor, Durang sees hope for change in his set, stubborn creations.
One of the agents of change in this play is a character borrowed not from the works of Chekhov, but from the ranks of Greek tragedy: Cassandra. In Greek mythology, she is a Trojan princess with second sight, cursed to always tell the truth—and to never be believed. In Durang’s version, she is a cleaning lady who greets Vanya and Sonia with portents of doom. (“Cassandra, I have asked you repeatedly to please just say good morning,” pleads Vanya.) Unlike the Greek Cassandra, who is rendered powerless by others’ refusal to take her words seriously, this Cassandra takes matters into her own hands. “I’m tired of foretelling the future, but then the bad things happen anyway,” she says, taking out a voodoo doll dressed in a Snow White costume. (Trust me, this will make sense in context.) “I want to change the future.”
Prompted by Cassandra, and encouraged by a hopeful young neighbor, Durang’s three siblings reluctantly realize that, if they want to truly honor their past, they must also find a way to evolve to meet the future—whether that means finding a job, taking a chance on disappointment or admitting the ways in which they’ve already changed.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, in the very best classical tradition, starts and ends with nearly the same image: aging siblings looking out the window of their family home. But they’re not the same. When you watch this production, pay close attention to the incremental differences in these two moments that frame the play. What has come in between? Dwarf costumes, disappointment, a reverse strip-tease, portents of doom, Maggie Smith impersonations, ill-timed texting and a party… but also, perhaps, Durang’s answer to Chekhov. How do we live? We change. Slowly, painfully, hilariously and with several existential crises along the way.
*Not actually a Kourtney Kardashian quote. But fun fact: Kourtney did minor in Spanish.
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