Chekhovian angst mined for Durang-ian mirth

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBy Richard Ades

There’s nothing quite as fun as watching Christopher Durang take on the Catholic Church, as he proved in his classic satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But seeing him take on Anton Chekhov is also good for laughs.

He does so in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award winner that borrows names and themes from the dour Russian, along with a general air of depressed malaise. That is, the characters suffer from depression; the audience is in hysterics.

CATCO’s current production benefits from a director with a flair for comedy—David Hemsley Caldwell—and two lead players who are equally adept. Jonathan Putnam and Danielle Mann are quietly masterful as Vanya and Sonia, the 50-something siblings who share a miserable existence in the home once owned by their deceased parents.

The first scene establishes their flinty relationship. Sonia brings Vanya his morning coffee, only to learn he’s already poured himself a cup. She complains that he’s deprived her of one of her few daily pleasures, leading to an argument that eventually ends in broken china.

Sonia, we learn, was adopted. We also learn that she’s attracted to Vanya despite his protestations that he marches to a “different drummer”—i.e., he’s gay. Putnam and Mann inhabit the unhappy pair so thoroughly that their personalities come through even when they’re just sitting and glumly observing the world.

Meanwhile, Chekhov is referenced in multiple ways, including Sonia’s insistence that a nearby stand of 10 or 11 trees constitutes a “cherry orchard.” But don’t worry if you’re rusty on the playwright’s works—Durang throws in enough explanations to keep everyone in the loop.

In a nod to Greek mythology, he also makes sure we know why a character named Cassandra is doomed to making dire predictions that no one believes. Shanessa Sweeney is a live wire as the housekeeper, whose ability to see the future comes in handy following the sudden appearance of Sonia and Vania’s successful sister, Masha (Lori Cannon).

The movie star barges in with her younger lover, Spike (William Darby), and begins talking about a change that will upset her siblings’ boring but stable existence. Narcissistic and overbearing, Masha proved a difficult character to enjoy at Wednesday’s preview matinee, especially since Cannon at first had trouble playing her with more than one note. Cannon fared better after intermission, when Masha’s insecurities bubbled to the surface and made her recognizably—and hilariously—human.

As Spike, Darby has some nice comic moments but is mostly limited to stripping off his clothes and showing off his physique. In a more nuanced role, Kristen Krak is lovable as Nina, an aspiring actress who quickly forms a bond with the man she insists on calling “Uncle Vanya.”

Completing the near-perfect production, Eric Barker’s painterly set is expressively lit by Jarod Wilson to suggest the passage of time as the action wends its way from morning to night and back to morning. It’s an entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted trip, and one that’s well worth taking.

CATCO will present Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 24 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. A preview will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 7). Regular show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $17 Wednesday, $30 Thursday, $40 Friday-Saturday and $35 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

DIY playwright returns with new ‘dream play’

Nick Baldasare (lying down), Jeff Horst and Josie Merkle in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)
Nick Baldasare (lying down), Jeff Horst and Josie Merkle in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

More and more, creative types are refusing to let rejection hold them back.

Authors who can’t find a publisher are publishing their own books. Critics whose publications get shut out from under them are starting their own blogs. (Yes, that’s a situation I know well.)

Then there’s Bill Cook, Columbus State professor and fledgling playwright. When he was ready to stage an original comedy called Love in an Age of Clamor last year, he figured he might as well produce it—i.e., make the necessary arrangements and put up the money—himself. His reasoning was that it would be difficult to find a theater troupe that wanted to take a chance on a new work by an unknown playwright.

“If you do a work that’s already been done—you know, already has press, people know of it—it’s less risky to do,” he said.

So, rather than look around for a troupe that was willing to try something untried, he formed his own theater company and booked space at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. He even planned to direct the play himself, but then he ran into a snag: He couldn’t find a cast.

“I didn’t know any actors, and nobody showed up to the audition,” Cook said.

Luckily for him, the person in charge of managing the venue was Joe Bishara, associate artistic director of CATCO and an experienced thespian. Even more luckily, Bishara took an interest in the project.

“We ran into each other, and I said, ‘Hmm, nobody’s shown up,’” Cook recalled. “He said, ‘Well, let me see the script.’ And then he liked it, and so he decided to (direct) it.”

The upshot was that Love in an Age of Clamor was performed last spring, with Nick Baldasare leading a cast of three. It apparently was enough of a success that Cook and his company, A&B Theatricals, are now back with another original play called The Promised Land.

Opening tonight at CPAC, the play reunites director Bishara with leading man Baldasare. Filling out the cast are Josie Merkle as Baldasare’s wife and Jeff Horst as assorted other characters.

Another similarity to the previous work: Like Clamor, it’s a “dream play,” which means it unfolds with the not-quite-real logic of a dream.

“It’s a form that just comes naturally to me,” said Cook, 61. “(It allows me to) follow an idea rather than plotting in a conventional way.”

He added that it also allows him to move events along at a fast clip. “I like a lot of action in plays, whether they’re mine or others’,” he said.

Still another similarity to Clamor: In that play, Baldasare’s character lost his home and, possibly, his marriage. In this one, he loses his job.

Why is Cook so fascinated by the theme of loss?

“I think what I’m addressing is middle-class anxieties,” he said, mentioning fears of potential dangers such as unemployment or infidelity. “They lurk in the background of most people’s middle-class life.”

And all this adds up to a comedy? Yes, Cook said, though it’s a comedy “with a certain amount of pain in it, too.”

“I don’t think comedy precludes pain and desperation, or even the tragic,” he said. “Chekhov, right?”

And like Anton Chekhov, Cook has more than two plays in him. He’s already working on yet another dream play about yet another kind of loss.

“It’s about the ultimate middle-class nightmare, which is going to prison.”

A&B Theatricals will present The Promised Land March 22-30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. in Downtown Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Thursday through March 30. Tickets are $12, $8 for students. For reservations, visit brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit ab-theatical.com.