Arts Beat: Durang à la Chekhov brings comedy with an edge to the Playhouse

Front row, from left, Cate Damon, Stephan Amenta, and Shelagh Hackett; back row, from left, Brandon Whitehead, Ellie Brelis, and Mona Hennessy. — MJ Bruder Munafo

Christopher Durang is a Tony awardwinning playwright. He’s erudite. He writes sparkling dialogue. He knows his theater. He explores complex themes. And his plays can be very, very funny.

Which is why MJ Bruder Munafo, executive and artistic director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, decided to produce Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” It’s funny, among other things, and it begins on July 13.

“As producer, I thought this would be a good play to work into our main stage season. I’ve always been a big fan of Durang, and at one point we happily mounted a number of his one-acts. While I hadn’t seen or read this play, it’s very popular, so I thought I’d take a look. I wanted something that would make me laugh — something we all need right now — and this fit the bill. As a director, I find the dialogue extremely well-written, and Durang’s point of view so astute, that it is a delight to stage. The cast and I find ourselves laughing in rehearsal all the time, although this will have to stop. It’s for the audience to enjoy the hilarity, and for us to provide it, à la Durang’s script.”

If you know your theater, you’ll know, from the title alone, that Durang is riffing on Chekhov, even if you’re not sure why. If you don’t know your theater (that’s Anton Chekhov to you, the late 19th century celebrated Russian playwright) you might infer from the title that something is up, something a bit off-center, a bit cheeky, a play that stands a good chance of taking you somewhere new in a new way. Either way, you’d be right.

In terms of Chekhov, Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” references more than one Chekhov play: character names, an orchard, siblings, adoption, a family home, selling the family home, a celebrity, and more — language that floats around our collective consciousness — allusions you’ve heard somewhere but can’t quite place. 

Carol Rocomora, the internationally renowned Chekovian scholar and translator of Chekhov’s complete dramatic works, says, “One of the key common elements between Chekhov and Durang is the sense of the absurd. Many people don’t realize this, but Chekhov was the precursor to the theater of the absurd and the works of Beckett, Albee, Pinter, Stoppard, and of course Durang, who readily acknowledges Chekhov’s influence. Durang is a humorist who has used his own personal pain in writing brilliant absurdist theater with deep themes, witty observations, sparkling dialogue, and a sense of the ridiculous. ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is Durang at his absurdist best — unhinged, hilarious, and heartwarming!” 

Harry Haun, in a Playbill interview from 2013, quotes Durang: “My play is not a Chekhov parody. I’ve been saying that I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender.” So don’t panic if you don’t know Chekhov. Durang’s play is self-contained, and completely enjoyable without any theater experience at all. 

Durang earned a graduate degree in playwriting from Yale. A prolific author, he went from Yale to New York City and the off-off-Broadway scene. Success followed, with productions on Broadway, regionally and in translations around the world. Robert Brustein, the longtime theater critic for the New Republic and founder of both Yale Repertory Theatre and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, remembers Durang from his Yale days, saying, “What originally attracted me to Chris Durang’s work was his utterly original approach to playwriting. It had the same illuminating impact on me as did my first exposure to Beckett.” Quite an endorsement from quite a guy.

As director of this production, Munafo has the challenge of balancing Durang’s emotionally truthful story with his comic repartee. Life, even in its most tragic moments, doesn’t play out in the dark, and Durang understands people use humor to mask, avoid, or confront pain. Munafo, an experienced director of all types of shows, uses the rhythm of the show to find her way. She never plays for laughs, allowing the text itself to produce the comedy. She directs the quick-changing action, moods, and events, saying, “Even when there’s an absurdist moment, the emotions are real.” 

Munafo has assembled a fine cast, fitting her requirement of actors who could “play real people, while having a great sense of comic timing.” The cast features local Playhouse favorite Shelagh Hackett, New Englanders Cate Damon and Brandon Whitehead — two actors Munafo has wanted to work with for a while — New Yorker Stephan Amenta, Ellie Brelis — a young actor who’s played small roles in a number of the Playhouse’s outdoor Shakespeare productions, and a veteran actor from New Jersey, Mona Hennesy, who has recently moved to the Island and is in her first M.V. Playhouse appearance.

Theater at its best, with a terrific team of artists, putting on a script that is incisive, reflective — and yes — funny. What’s not to like?


“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is in previews July 13 and 15, opening night July 16, running thru August 3 at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Information and tickets at 508-696-6300 or