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.

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Hollywood agent drops names, spills secrets in one-woman gabfest

Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Do you like to dish? Do you love show business? Are you crazy about Bette Midler?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you’ll probably enjoy I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.

Midler starred in the one-woman play on Broadway, and Short North Stage’s production never lets you forget it. If Deb Colvin-Tener’s portrayal doesn’t remind you of the Divine Miss M, you must be suffering from either extreme youth or a serious case of amnesia.

Mengers (1932-2011) fled Nazi Germany as a girl and grew up to be a successful Hollywood agent. John Logan’s script reveals how she did it, then imparts juicy bits of gossip about her famed clients and other Tinseltown bigwigs she scuffled with while promoting those clients.

It leaves us with the feeling that Mengers could be an invaluable friend and a formidable adversary.

In one of her most fascinating stories, she talks about her campaign to persuade a reluctant William Friedkin to hire an obscure actor named Gene Hackman to star in The French Connection (1971). She pursued this partly by blocking the director’s driveway with her Bentley, but mostly by delivering a soundly reasoned explanation of just what Hackman would bring to the role.

When you hear who they were thinking of hiring in his place, you realize just how much we all owe her.

Mengers could be described as a force of nature—except that it would have to be an immobile force of nature. “Exercise has not played a big part in my life,” she announces, and she proves it by spending the entire play lounging on her couch. So averse is she to unnecessary exertion that she calls on an audience member for help when she needs something that’s on the other side of her plush, Michael S. Brewer-designed living room.

Directed by Jonathan Putnam, one of Central Ohio’s leading experts on comedy, Colvin-Tener makes the most of curmudgeonly lines like “I just don’t get the appeal of children.” It would have been nice to see a little more Colvin-Tener mixed in with the Midler-inspired gestures and intonations, but Midler fans won’t mind in the least.

Besides being funny, Colvin-Tener communicates the forced bravado that shows not everything is right with Mengers’s world.

We learn early on that she’s been fired by Barbra Streisand, one of her first and favorite clients, and is expecting the personal call that will make it official. Mengers’s career seems to be in trouble, but she’s determined to tough it out with her usual swagger, fueled by whatever courage she can gain from alcohol and marijuana.

With the Academy Awards presentation less than a week away, this is a particularly appropriate time to catch I’ll Eat You Last. After seeing it, you begin to understand the crucial role Mengers and her colleagues played in shaping the industry it celebrates.

Short North Stage will present I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers through March 1 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show Feb. 27) and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Duck-centered talk is both funny and philosophical

Poster for the debut production of Geoff Nelson's new troupe, A Portable Theatre
Poster for The Duck Variations, starring Jonathan Putnam (seated) and Geoffrey Nelson (photo courtesy of A Portable Theatre)

By Richard Ades

After watching a local 2012 production of November, David Mamet’s clunky attempt at political satire, it was hard to get enthused over the prospect of seeing another Mamet comedy.

On the other hand, it was easy to get enthused over the prospect of seeing the debut of Geoffrey Nelson’s new touring troupe, A Portable Theatre. Especially since the production starred both Nelson and longtime cohort Jonathan Putnam.

The two CATCO alums have been doing theater together for more than 30 years, as Nelson noted on opening night, and it shows in the easy way they play off each other. Working under Nelson’s direction, they mine every bit of humor from Mamet’s two-person one-act, The Duck Variations.

The surprising bonus, for those who suffered through November, is that the one-act has quite of bit of humor to mine. Written in 1972, when Mamet was just closing in on the quarter-century mark, it’s basically a wide-ranging conversation between two strangers who meet in a park.

Politics, economics, friendship, pollution—these and more topics come up. But the conversation starts with and often returns to ducks, with which each of the men seems to identify in various ways. Being at an age when they’re aware of their own mortality, they particularly sympathize with the males who attain leadership roles only to be replaced by younger males when they’re felled by death.

It’s all a bit profound, and just a little sad. Mostly, though, it’s funny, thanks to the personality clashes that arise.

Emil (Nelson) is frankly lonely and is happy to find someone to talk to, but he can’t help being annoyed by his companion’s tendency to bloviate on subjects he obviously knows little about. George (Putnam), for his part, becomes both annoyed and defensive when his misstatements are questioned.

At one point, George goes so far as to insist that birds are the only animals capable of flight. Only later, after Emil drops the subject, is he willing to admit that insects also have been known to take wing.

In a talkback session after the opening-night performance, Nelson explained that the characters are meant to be in their 60s. That probably seemed ancient to the then-20-something playwright, who imbued them with several familiar characteristics of old age.

Being in his 60s himself, Nelson said, he actually thinks of the men as being in their 80s. However, neither actor makes an obvious effort to age his character. This subtle approach allows Emil and George to come across, not as stereotypical oldsters, but as individuals who are touchingly vulnerable and recognizably—and hilariously—human.

A Portable Theatre will present The Duck Variations through June 23. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the BalletMet Performance Space, 322 Mount Vernon Ave.; and 8 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. Thursday at Abbey Theater of Dublin, 5600 Post Road. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20, $10 students ($15/$10 students at Thursday matinee). Aportabletheatre.com.