Laughter abounds in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which even in its title sounds more than a little absurd. This laughter-provoking farce by well-known playwright Christopher Durang is a rollicking story essentially centering around sibling rivalry.
The lights come up on Vanya and Sonia donning their sleepwear, well played by Brandon Whitehead and Cate Damon respectively, who from the get-go enter into ridiculous bickering over the morning coffee as they sit overlooking the “cherry orchard,” as Sonia refers to it, which Vanya insists is just a small bunch of trees. Ten to 11 of them does not an orchard make, Vanya insists.
Clearly brother and sister have too much time on their hands. It becomes abundantly clear that Sonia, who was in fact adopted, enjoys bemoaning that her life is empty — has absolutely no meaning — and she has an unnatural attachment to her depression. And certainly this seems true now that their parents, whom she took care of, have passed away. Vanya too is not happy with his lot. Their bemoaning evokes laughter instead of much sympathy.
The plot focuses around the visit of their self-starstruck movie-actress sister Masha, played by Shelagh Hackett, who has come toting her newest boy-lover along. Spike’s about half her age and not afraid to show it — and a lot else, as it turns out, as he has a penchant for removing articles of clothing. Stephan Amenta plays this lover boy with full abandon, which endears us to his silly, fickle character who pictures himself a sex god even though he’s, so far, a failed actor. The young, innocent girl next door, Nina, played by Ellie Brelis, is smitten with him, and likewise has undying adoration for Masha, taking all the abuse the woman doles out without a flinch.
Perhaps the most absurd character in a play that’s ripe with them is the cleaning woman Cassandra, played by Mona Hennessy, who from the moment she enters is a dedicated prophetess of nothing but momentous doom and gloom, aptly recalling her Greek mythological namesake. Her name is not the only allusion in the play, and in fact many to Chekov abound — to “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Three Sisters,” “The Seagull,” and “Uncle Vanya” — but Durang drops them in so deftly that there’s no need to pick them up to follow the storyline.
Egocentric Masha insists on making herself the center of attention, and the story follows her two desires. The first is to attend the neighbor’s costume party as the perfectly coiffed Snow White and, as in life, make sure everyone else plays supporting roles. Vanya and Nina fall into step as her dwarfs, and Spike — of course — fancies himself Prince Charming. But Sonia rebels and insists on playing the Evil Queen as though acted by Dame Maggie Smith. Her elegant persona and sparkling gown and tiara makes her more of a princess, and it is she who ends up the belle of the ball. Masha, unsurprisingly, is not pleased with being bumped from leading lady.
Just before the party, Masha, who has spent her career paying for the family home, drops the bombshell that she intends to sell it, seemingly uncaring that this would leave her siblings homeless. While Vanya and Sonia only manage to protest, it is Cassandra who mischievously tries to undermine the sale by practicing a little painful black magic.
In the meantime, despite the threat of homelessness, Vanya lets Nina convince him to do a reading of the play about climate change he’s secretly been writing in which, of all things, molecules are the characters with deep emotions in a world where the Earth no longer exists. Here we go from the sublime to the ridiculous as Vanya makes a litany of pronouncements, ending in a rant about yearning for earlier times “when we licked postage stamps.” As an audience member, Masha is perhaps surprisingly attentive, but Spike is more interested in blatantly texting on his cell phone.
The cell phone and iPod, as well as a Dustbuster, firmly root the comedy in the 21st century. Although it takes place in 2010 Bucks County, the enormously evocative set design by Sean Roach, built by Paul Munafo, of a country estate could just as easily belong to another century and another country — perhaps pre-revolutionary Russia for anyone with a Chekhovian mindset. The lighting design by Ernest W. Iannaccone and costumes by Cynthia Bermudes are likewise spot-on.
MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse and veteran stage director for over 25 years, has masterfully worked her magic on “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” It is her deft craft and the wonderful cast that make what could have been a silly play into an engaging evening of entertainment.
And besides, you’ll want to go to see if the mysterious blue heron arrives.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through August 3 at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Visit mvplayhouse.org for ticket information and schedule.