Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Anyone even remotely familiar with the body of work by Russian playwright Anton Chekov (1860 – 1904) will recognize three of the four names in the title of the Cider Mill Playhouse’s latest show. “Vanya” and “Sonia” (from Uncle Vanya) and “Masha” (from The Seagull) will ring a bell, but the fourth, decidedly slangy name, “Spike,” will not. You will not have seen a “Spike” type in anything Chekov, either, and that’s why his appearance here is so much fun.
Christopher Durang’s two-act comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is a relatively new (2012) work, first , but its Chekovian themes — aging, disappointment, loss, familial angst — remain universal. Happily, the Tony and Drama Desk award winner does not depend on the audience having a degree in Russian literature to be entertaining, and the Cider Mill production is engaging, if not a little too long.
Under Tom Kremer’s direction, Equity actors Tom Byrn (Vanya), Carol Hanscom (Sonia), Heidi Weeks (Masha) and non-union actor,Jake Wentlent (Spike) inhabit Paul M. Radassaso’s comfortable set — a back porch apparently overlooking a lake and, of course, a cherry orchard — with uneven results.
While Byrn and Hanscom are alright as a bickering brother and sister with issues, the amazing Heidi Weeks, as the visiting sibling Masha, steals the scenes in which she appears. Masha is a narcissist whose failed marriages and dubious film career would require her to be about as conceited as we find her. Her portrayal ranges from disgust to fake concern, frivolity and, when her actor boyfriend, Spike, arrives, unbridled lust and jealously. Hers is a fun part to play, and Weeks takes advantage of that. She would still have been perfect with only half of what she throws into her performance.
Jake Wentlent’s Spike is in-your-face sexy, maybe too sexy if that’s possible. Spike’s nearly a cartoon of a lusty character, and the young actor playing him here is unabashed and uninhibited. Of course, he lands in some trouble, but he really could not care less. “And for God’s sake, put your pants back on,” Masha scolds him (or with words to that effect).
Anna Simek as the young star-struck visitor, Nina, and Maria Maranzo Johnson as the soothsaying housekeeper, Cassandra, are fine as supporting cast members who help make sense of the plot, each giving it a direction to advance. However, if Cassandra is supposed to be a Greek, the accent I heard was confusing.
Still, the play is worth watching, and people of a certain age, mid to late 50s, will get the most out of it. They’ll enjoy Hanscom’s transformation from frumpy spinster to party girl, channeling Maggie Smith, and Byrn’s overlong and occasionally sprayed-through-clenched-teeth rant against the evils of modern times will resonate with anyone who longs for what we used to call “defining moments.” Note that this criticism lies only with the script, not the actor. It called for the kind of passion with which Byrn delivers his lines. I just got weary of it about five minutes before it ended.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike ends on a tender note and redeems anything worth redeeming in the characters. It even includes a little Beatles music, more timely now than ever with the very recent passing of the Fab Four’s record producer, George Martin.
IF YOU GO: The play, billed as a “girls’ night out,” opened last weekend (March 3-6) and will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday through March 20. Tickets are $28-$32; call 748-7363, or visit the box office from 12:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 12:30-4 p.m. Saturdays and 12:30 until curtain time on the day of performance. You also can buy online at www.cidermillplayhouse.org.