For those who have never heard of this play until reading this article, fear not. I was just like you until a couple weeks ago, when I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to see the newest dramatic sensation of McCarter Theatre’s fall season. Ticket clutched tightly in my hand, I started to regret my decision as soon as I walked through the entrance to find my seat. As my eyes scanned the crowd, I noticed that nearly all of the audience was comprised of elderly, upper class white citizens. Having no idea what the plot of the play was, I immediately assumed that the next three hours would consist of a performance targeted toward an older generation whose entertainment I would not understand. My skepticism only intensified when I opened the program and read that many of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’s themes and characters were inspired by the plays of 19th century Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with.
Let me tell you now how gravely I was mistaken. Filled with humor that is relatable (at least most of the time) to both the older and younger generations, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike can be succinctly summarized as a light-hearted, predictable, and enjoyable comedy. Written by Christopher Durang, the play’s cast notably includes David Hyde Pierce, best known for his work on the NBC sitcom Frasier, and Academy Award-nominated actress Sigourney Weaver.
Set in modern times, the story of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike centers around three siblings in their fifties whose relationships have been deeply shattered since the devastating death of their parents. Their problems are not few. Sonia was adopted and has always been envious of her sister Masha. Sonia has no friends, has never had a lover, and comes across as just plain pathetic. Vanya is gay, misses the past and has a hard time being heard. Masha, though coming across as having the perfect life as an acclaimed actress, can’t keep a man by her side and has been looking for love and attention in all the wrong places. Basically, the three of them have individual issues that they must inevitably come to terms with over the course of the play.
Factor in Spike, Masha’s latest beau whose washboard abs are rivaled only by his perfect biceps; Cassandra, the housekeeper who believes she can see the future and Nina; the beautiful neighbor who unintentionally steals attention from Masha. Though there are no set changes in the play and only six characters, the drama between the characters, combined with frequent comic relief, allows for three hours in which you forget about your own life and attentively delve into the troubles of those on stage.
Not every moment of watching Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, however, was enjoyable. The first appearance of Cassandra, the only person of color in the production, caused me to hesitate in my praise of Durang’s work. At first, Cassandra’s character seems to conform to the role of the loud, silly, unintelligent black woman often performed for comedic value in countless contemporary dramatic works. However, as the play went on, I realized that she wasn’t the only character who came across as a bit of a stereotype. Middle-aged Vanya, for instance, has a ridiculously long monologue in which he reminisces about the old days, making several references to culture in the 1950’s and criticizing modern conventions.
Yes, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has its flaws in some of its characters. However, I guarantee you’ll enjoy yourself. If you’re looking for a few laughs one night from now until October 14th, then check out a performance of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at McCarter Theatre Center. Be forewarned: this play contains a high volume of esoteric Chekhov references.