Sunday, September 29, 2013

Channeling Chekhov: Phoenix Theatre opens 31st season with Christopher Durang comedy

The title strings out the names of four characters with the flat egalitarianism characteristic of the play's patron saint: "Vanya  and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is Christopher Durang's rambunctious tribute to Anton Chekhov and the 2013 Tony-winner that opens Phoenix Theatre's new season.

The idiosyncratic rambunctiousness, not something readily associated with Chekhov, is what Durang brings to the stage from a long series of coruscating successes. The underlying theme of weariness with life and the audacity of presenting characters who may bore or annoy us but are treated with wry affection are the Chekhovian bedrock.  On it Durang builds a family structure of sacrifice, missed opportunity and petty vanity played out in a solid old home in the upscale bucolic setting of Bucks County, Pa.

The first three characters grew up in that household dominated by punishingly overcultured parents whose latter-day decline from Alzheimer's was borne physically and emotionally by homebodies Vanya and Sonia, financially by the ambitious Hollywood actress Masha, who flits about to more exotic locations than she can remember. Her surprise visit,  accompanied by a raunchy young boyfriend named Spike, precipitates a family crisis involving a typical Chekhov catastrophe: the threat of change.

Sonia (left) and Vanya learn something new from Cassandra.
Durang has fun with allusions from the four major Chekhov plays, but his intent seems to be to use the humanity and some of the style of his Russian model to comment on the American obsession with the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. In the 21st century, that scriptural pursuit comes up not only against the allure of the multitasking bitch-goddess Success, but also more crucially against the possibility that any change we set in motion quickly jerks out of human control.

That's the premise of the play Vanya has written, his secret escape from habitual disappointment. It's a dystopian ecological fantasy whose staged reading in the second act sets up "Vanya..."'s major revelation, with a denouement leading to a shared, placid resignation echoing the final moments of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." In the process, Vanya gets to rail against Spike's  mindless plugged-in world, Sonia gets a nearly incredible glimmer of what self-esteem might feel like, and Masha learns a lesson about aging and rootedness.

Bryan Fonseca directs a cast unparalleled for the quality of mutual engagement they bring to the stage. Despite the stunning strength of individual moments, 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" builds on Chekhov's stripping the armor of heroism from theater and making every character major, even while underlining their inadequacies. The strength comes from their relationships, clumsily patched together and finally taking on a more durable form, despite misunderstandings as trivial as the argument Vanya and Sonia have about coffee in the opening scene.

The patient, repressed Vanya is played by Charles Goad with wary tenderness, counterpointed against the astonishingly detailed anxiety projected by Diane Kondrat as Sonia. They carom off each other emotionally like billiard balls — another part of the Chekhov legacy, in which characters talk past each other, almost accidentally getting caught up in what someone else has said.

Jen Johansen is Masha, striding, statuesque and apt to mistake self-centeredness for self-awareness.
Masha returns home ready to run things.
She's in the habit of being deferred to, even though she's dependent on a shadowy personal assistant's scheduling and the anything-but-shadowy erotic attention of Spike, whose bounding physicality and leaden intelligence were well-matched in Pete Lindblom's performance.

As soon as you enter Phoenix's Russell Stage and take in Bernie Killian's set, warmly lit by Laura Glover, you know you're looking at a home that is supposed to feel comfortable. But you suspect it is bound to become anything but, for this is a Durang play inspired by theater's subtle master of domestic discomfort.

To have a soothsayer for a housekeeper, her mouth full of verbose imprecations and warnings, is an over-the-top guarantee of discomfort. She's in the tradition of scorned, underestimated servants, but like her namesake Cassandra, her sometimes cryptic, always ignored prophecies cling to some portion of vital truth. Dwandra Nickole Lampkin in the role held sway over the broken household with cryptic, well-articulated authority.

She is one of those Chekhov-derived intimate outsiders, along with ingenue Nina, who is visiting the neighbors and becomes entangled in the family thanks to her star-worship of Masha. Played with wide-eyed sincerity by Ashley Dillard, Nina goes along with Masha's manipulative casting of the group (except Cassandra) for a neighborhood costume party. Out of her dated, personally disastrous scenario, seismic shifts in stature result, managed with quirky plausibility by Durang and Fonseca's adept players.

An oddly riveting theatrical trick is when characters look out intently through the fourth wall. It seems they are looking at us or through us, but of course the audience knows they are fixated on something else, something we can't see. It's a moment when we are forced to shed our feeling of superiority to them, and it never lasts long.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" begins and ends that way. Vanya shuffles onstage in his nightshirt peering out toward the pond, hoping to sight the customary blue heron. At play's end, he and his sisters look out more vacantly in the same direction, all that we  have learned about them mirrored in their faces. But there is something they are taking in beyond our ken. Even the sentimental strains of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" wafting from an MP3 player can't wipe away all the irresolution and existential doubt in their gaze.

I was reminded of a poem by Robert Frost, though his watchers are on the seacoast looking out, not landlocked on a fading country estate. The poem ends: "They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar / To any watch they keep?"

Fonseca's usual pitch to Phoenix audiences  — to tell 10 friends if you liked the play— might be modified in honor of Chekhov's indelible hallmarks of loneliness and repetitiveness: If you have just five friends, tell each of them to see "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" twice. It runs through Oct. 20.