If you’ve never had even a passing interest in the works of playwright Anton Chekhov, chances are you’re a member of the ideal audience for the Hampton Theatre Company’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which opened this past weekend and runs through June 12.
Sure, the three main characters are named after Chekhov characters. But the reasoning behind the three siblings’ names is straightforward — their parents were college professors with a penchant for community theater.
And yes, the play does take place on a soon-to-be sold estate, a running theme throughout Chekhov’s work. The estate is even in a cherry orchard, though most of the characters just see the orchard as a dozen or so scraggly trees.
But Chekhov never got to write for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He never got to include a cameo of Maggie Smith being nominated for an Oscar. There are no actors practicing their strip tease in any of his plays. And there is no record that he ever visited Bucks County, PA.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which won the Tony Award for best play in 2013, is pretty darn funny, and Hampton Theatre Company’s cast, under the direction of Diana Marbury, does a fine job playing it right.
The play opens on two siblings — Vanya, a half-closeted confirmed bachelor played by Andrew Botsford, and his adopted bumbling and angry sister Sonia, played by Jane Lowe. They are living together in their deceased parents’ Bucks County home, spending their days bickering and wondering what to eat, while their movie star sister Masha, played by Rosemary Cline, is off making movies and paying their bills.
If you don’t see this play, you’ll likely never again get a chance see Andrew Botsford in both a nightgown and a dwarf costume. He takes on Vanya as a perpetually meek and resigned man who secretly writes plodding plays about climate change, his cheeks sunken, his dejection complete, his affect toothless and bumbling. But he really is just plain charming.
Ms. Lowe is a secret weapon in this show’s plot. As a whiny bipolar resentment-laden adoptee who perpetually scrunches up the bridge of her nose to keep her glasses from slipping, she’s downright annoying. She’s supposed to be. But she’s bound to snap, and when she does, what hatches is a debonair monster in a green sequined gown — Maggie Smith about to win an Oscar in “California Suite,” upstaging her adoptive sister in a roar of glee.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is referential in the extreme — it’s a post-modern play for a post-modern audience — keenly aware of its own irrelevance and intent on manufacturing an air of irreverence. At some points it forces you to sit tight and listen in agony to its inner workings. Mr. Botsford’s Vanya bears the brunt of this writing, in a jarring diatribe against text messages, selfies, the internet, the warming planet and just about everything about the modern world. This is the spinach and broccoli of this play. You have to eat it. It will make you strong. Maybe.
If you’re not going to the theater to eat your spinach and broccoli, rest assured, Rosemary Cline’s melodramatic stage hog Masha (she is supposed to be this way) brings some eye candy with her when she visits to tell her wretched siblings she’s selling the family home.
Her wannabe actor boy toy Spike, played by Eduardo Ramos, spends most of the play lounging around in his briefs and licking Masha’s neck. He’s ridiculous and he doesn’t know it, but you will know it and love him for taking your mind off the agony of the wasted lives of our Chekhovian siblings.
If strip teases aren’t your thing, perhaps some voodoo will help. Housekeeper Cassandra, played with bewildering mischief by Smeralda Abel, also has a literary lineage to live up to — she’s been cursed like Apollo’s Cassandra, spouting prophesies that no one believes. But you don’t need to get that literary reference either. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t.
The audience can’t ever tell if Cassandra’s possessed moments are an act or the work of demons. She leaves us guessing at her motivation every moment she’s on stage.
Actually, there are many moments in this play when the actors on stage seem to be grasping at a definition for their motivation. It can be painful to watch, but it does seem to be a part of Mr. Durang’s meta plan. It’s unsettling, to say the least.
If there’s one character who isn’t unsettling, it’s naifish neighbor Nina, played by Amanda Griemsmann. She stumbles upon Spike as he splashes around the Chekhov family’s duck pond in his underwear, and then follows him back to their house with an earnest desire to meet the famous actress Masha.
Nina is thrilled because it is her very own “name day” — a holiday synonymous with one’s birthday celebrated only by youngest sister Irina in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” You really don’t need to know that either.
Masha invites Nina to a costume party with her family and Nina shows up in a princess costume from K-Mart. She willingly agrees to change into a Dopey the Dwarf costume at Masha’s request. She ends the play as a wisp of a molecule in Vanya’s post-human climate diatribe script, a sprite dancing around the absurdity of this tortured family home.
The producers of this play are right that you don’t need to know anything about Chekhov to enjoy it — in fact, I can’t imagine it would help much if you did.
These characters are too metamodern and pigheaded to understand the pathos of their predicament. Let’s just say that, while Chekhov mulled over the themes of lives wasted, this play holds a mirror to a society filled with wasted lives.
But, heck, we can take selfies now, so maybe we don’t even need a mirror anymore either.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs at the Quogue Community Hall at 125 Jessup Avenue through June 12, with shows on Thursdays and Fridays at 7, Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2:30.
An audience talkback with members of the cast and the director will follow the performance on Thursday, June 2.
Tickets are $30 for general seating, $25 for seniors (except on Saturday night) and $10 for students under 21 and are available online here or by calling OvationTix at 1.866.811.4111.