Currently running at the Culinary Institute of America’s Marriott Pavilion Theatre in a new production by the talented performers at Half Moon Theatre, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is what one might term a stealth comedy. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which unmarried middle-aged siblings Vanya (Geoff Tarson) and Sonia (Samantha Jones) sit side-by-side staring out the fourth-wall window of the family home that they still inhabit in upscale Bucks County, Pennsylvania, seems awkwardly expository at first. It’s like the “establishing shot” in a movie: They fill the audience in on the basics of what we need to know about their humdrum existence (Sonia is adopted, Vanya is gay, et cetera) as they await the morning arrival of a heron on their backyard pond. They bewail their unlived lives, resenting their absent sister Masha (Amy Lemon Olson), who scarpered off to become a much-married, glamorous and successful movie star while they stayed behind to care for their aging parents.
They bicker, and Sonia smashes Vanya’s coffee cup on the floor. In storms the New-Agey housekeeper Cassandra (Deborah Coconis), melodramatically forecasting one disaster after another as she flings her lanky body into ridiculous postures and then cleans up the broken crockery. She’s so over-the-top that it’s almost alarming – until the audience slides off the cliff into Durang’s Absurdist world, settling into the realization that this is just another wacky day in this glum household, populated by two stagnant people whose parents thoughtlessly named them after Chekhov characters before slipping into senile dementia.
But today, something different does happen: Masha drops by, with her much-younger latest boyfriend in tow: Spike (Peter Kendall), a preening, hunky-but-dim aspiring actor with no perceptible talent beyond a readiness to peel off his clothing. Kendall’s portrayal seems as if it were inspired by Kevin Kline’s Oscar-winning turn as the smug thug Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. Half Moon Theatre mainstay Lemon Olson is equally vain, imperious and petulant as the spoiled sister, occasionally allowing her family – and the audience – a fleeting glimpse of vulnerability and self-doubt.
Spike goes out for a swim in the pond while Masha explains her plan to attend a costume party at an influential neighbor’s home, dressed as Snow White (the Disney version) and accompanied by her siblings dressed at dwarves. Spike meets and flirts with a pretty, innocent young neighbor, Nina (Melissa Marye Lehman), an aspiring actress who idolizes Masha. Jealous Masha starts to frazzle and eventually blurts out that she has decided to sell the house, as her career opportunities are waning.
Blindsided and suddenly aware of their financial and sentimental dependence on the family home, Sonia and Vanya get depressed, then begin to rebel. Vanya recruits Nina to do a reading of a play that he has secretly been working on, while frumpy Sonia decides that she’s not going anywhere dressed as Dopey to accommodate Masha. Instead, she glams up as the Wicked Queen, unexpectedly becoming the life of the party with her spot-on impersonations of Maggie Smith in California Suite. A gifted comedienne, Jones really shines in this transformation, and also aces the difficult thespian challenge of conveying a spectrum of emotions via one side of a phone call.
Tarson gets his big moment toward the end, when the usually sensible, low-key Vanya is enraged by Spike’s texting during Nina’s performance of his new play. His long, escalating rant about the decline of civility and civilization in the age of cellphones is an absolute tour-de-force; and if you happen to be a Baby Boomer who remembers early-‘60s TV phenomena like Señor Wences, it might be wise to be wearing your Depends during this scene. The hilarity is almost painful.
The comedy in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is wild, wooly and dark throughout, but the ending is not entirely hopeless. The entire cast is terrific, throwing everything they’ve got into these sad, silly doings of a family mired in regret and floundering toward some sort of second chance at life. You have two more weekends to catch it: Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, April 29 and 30 and May 6 and 7, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinées on May 1 and 7.
Tickets cost $45 general admission, $40 for seniors and $25 for students, and may be purchased by calling (800) 838-3006 or online at https://halfmoontheatre.org. As usual for these Half Moon productions at the CIA, you can book special pre-theater dining reservations at the Bocuse Restaurant, Ristorante Caterina de’Medici, American Bounty or Pangea for $39 to $49 by calling (845) 905-4533. The Marriott Pavilion is located on the Culinary Institute campus at 1946 Campus Drive, just off Route 9 in Hyde Park.