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Bucks County is a long way from Moscow. Fortunately, the three siblings of Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are not hell-bent on the Russian capital — though the journey does come up, among myriad references to the masterpieces of Anton Chekhov, to whom Durang has been offering genuflection and gentle kidding since 1974’s “The Idiots Karamazov,” written with Albert Innaurato and presented while the two were still students at the Yale School of Drama.
Alas, the distance between antic farceur Durang and humanitarian Chekhov proves even greater than the gap between the Delaware Valley and a dacha on the Steppes in the Huntington Theatre Company production (through Feb. 1 at the BU Theatre). By intention, “Vanya and Sonia” is neither parody nor homage. According to the author, the play “takes Chekhov’s characters and themes and puts them in a blender,” the result a bland if sweet smoothie served on the sun porch of Durang’s own home outside Philadelphia. The drink fizzes up rather delightfully in the second act, though I’m still not sure I would have awarded it a Tony. But perhaps I like my Chekhov straight and my Durang more anarchic, filled with such jangling detritus as flung dead babies (“The Marriage of Bette and Boo”) and severed body parts in hatboxes (“Betty’s Summer Vacation).
No such outrage here. Vanya and Sonia (the latter adopted and carrying a Bic-size torch for her gay brother) are middle-aged siblings stuck on the old homestead (a picturesque arts-and-crafts hacienda by set designer David Korins), having spent their salad days caring for aging parents while Masha, a now-aging movie star based on “The Seagull” ’s Madame Arkadina, paid the bills. Here Masha pays a rare visit to her dead-ended relations, accompanied by the vacuous boy toy Spike (a suitably ripped and airheaded Tyler Lansing Weaks), whose idea of exposing himself is both narcissistic and literal."
Into this milieu wander first a prescient cleaning woman aptly named Cassandra (Haneefah Wood) and then the girl next door, a thespian aspirant predictably called Nina (Allison Layman), who after intermission enacts Vanya’s symbolist drama triggered by climate warming, in which she plays a garlanded “molecule” left after Earth has fried. This “Seagull”-inspired exercise in expressionism leads to the play’s finest hour, a bravura breakdown in which Vanya mourns a pre-technology past characterized by licking postage stamps, dialing rotary telephones, and engaging in such arguably inane acts of “solidarity” as watching the misnomered “adventures” of Ozzie and Harriet.
The 2012 Off Broadway play that became the 2013 Broadway hit that won a Tony was directed by beloved former Huntington honcho Nicholas Martin, who was slated to helm this production as well but who died last spring. In his stead Jessica Stone, a member of Martin’s devoted posse (who played the title role in his spot-on “Betty’s Summer Vacation” for the Huntington), replicates his original direction, emphasizing not the play’s silliness but the heart and soul siphoned from Chekhov.
Still, in the first act there is little of the Russian master’s rueful compassion, just borrowings from his plots, in most of which the dying gentry breathes its last, and occasionally his dialogue. In frizzy bun and flannel peignoir, a disgruntled Sonia (Marcia DeBonis, ricocheting between temper and pathos) takes her place in the “morning room” for coffee, declaring the location fitting with a repetition of Masha’s famed, depressive entry into “The Seagull”: “I’m in mourning for my life.” And indeed, the life of Vanya and Sonia is thin stuff, its ennui and allusion interrupted only by Cassandra’s body-bending if murky predictions (most of them handily lifted from Greek drama) and, once the visitors arrive, Spike’s dimwitted preening.
Masha, blazing on in the fire-coiffed person of American Repertory Theater veteran Candy Buckley (“Treme”), sparks things with a diva mix of neediness (with regard to her escort) and bossiness — and a plan to attend a costume party next door as Snow White, with Spike as Prince Charming and her drabber siblings as dwarves. Oh, and she’s selling the house, complete with a clump of cherry trees Sonia hysterically insists on calling an orchard.
The morning after the party dawns dramaturgically brighter with Wood’s amusingly elastic Cassandra evoking voodoo and Martin Moran’s ameliorative Vanya unveiling both his avant-garde eulogy for a globally toasted planet and a more assertive personality. The stepped aria in which he decries the isolation wrought by social media, harking back to a better world defined by Dinah Shore, Bishop Sheen, Señor Wences, and single-tasking is both a hilarious set piece and a genuine cri de coeur from the playwright. Moreover, Moran’s delivery is both poignant and priceless. Would that he would never stop – and there are times it seems he won’t until both energy and the well of mid-20th-century pop-cultural reference are exhausted.
Perhaps 27 regional productions (the most this season of any play not by Shakespeare) can’t be wrong, and I can. And I did enjoy the play’s nod to the rending if noble end of “Uncle Vanya,” in which Durang’s inspirations, their hearts and hopes crushed, sit down to farm business, promising to be at unhappy peace while striving for the future. In this more cheerful rendition, the call to work is reduced to a choice between passionate idleness and an idyll at CVS (no contest). But for all the author’s protestations, how is this what Shakespeare might term a “thing itself” and not a send-up?
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