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.

Advertisements

[title of review]

Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]
Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]
By Richard Ades

I arrive at the Riffe Center’s Studio Three and prepare to watch CATCO’s cabaret-style production of [title of show]. The intimate room is a pleasant place to watch theater, but I have my doubts about whether I should be watching this particular piece of theater.

My trepidation stems from what I’ve heard about Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s offbeat musical, which first appeared in 2004, had an off-Broadway run in 2006 and finally turned up on Broadway for about three months in 2008. What I’ve heard is that the show is loaded with inside jokes and references that only gay, theater-obsessed New Yorkers can fully appreciate.

As the show begins, my fears seem justified. Some jokes fly right by me, while others just don’t seem that funny. Several audience members seem equally mystified—indeed, I can see one woman across the room who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire two hours and 10 minutes.

However, a small group of viewers makes up for this by laughing at nearly everything the cast does. Looking around, I realize that most of the laughs are coming from four men sitting in a tight circle. To be sure, many viewers chuckle or at least smile at various jokes, but this quartet supplies the bulk of the audience response.

So what is this show that appeals—intentionally, as it turns out—to such a select audience? It’s basically a musical about putting on a musical. Composer/lyricist Bowen and book writer Bell wanted to enter a show in an upcoming theater festival, and since they didn’t have any ideas, they decided to make the show its own subject.

A bit self-indulgent, don’t you think? Like the theatrical equivalent of a taking a selfie? Yes, and some of the early humor acknowledges that fact by focusing on the creators’ superficiality. In particular, the show’s version of Hunter is loath to begin a new project because he’s too involved in watching TV’s The Bachelor and Project Runway.

If the musical has any depth and universal meaning, it involves the participants’ desire to do something that would finally allow them to make theater the center of their existences. The self-doubt that prevents all of us from taking necessary chances in life is lampooned in one of the better songs, Die, Vampire, Die.

Back to Studio Three: As I watch the musical unfold under Joe Bishara’s direction, I admire both the cast’s singing and the keyboard work of accompanist Quinton Jones. But I also think the actors are portraying their characters with mixed success. That’s especially true of two female friends who join Jeff and Hunter’s project.

Elisabeth Zimmerman—who played one of my favorite characters in CATCO’s wonderful 2013 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is entertaining as Heidi, to the extent that the thinly written role allows her to be. However, Annie Huckaba never quite gels as Susan, instead coming off as a caricature of playful quirkiness.

As for the men, Bradley Johnson is tastefully flamboyant as Hunter, while Jonathan Collura balances him out nicely as the more down-to-earth Jeff. It’s only in the later stages of the play that I begin to think Collura’s Jeff should have shown more passion for their shared project from the beginning. Maybe then the argument that arises late in Act 2 would be more convincing.

Truthfully, though, it’s unfair to blame the actors for anything that happens in Act 2.

The act didn’t even exist when the musical first opened, having been written to explain how the show and its creators changed as it moved to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway itself. Watching the second act in Studio Three, I quickly decide that adding it was a mistake.

And I’m not alone, judging from the audience’s reaction. Even the four biggest laughers are noticeably quiet as Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi argue endlessly about whether they’ll ever get the show to Broadway and whether all of them will still be on board if and when it gets there.

Finally, Hunter suggests it’s time to bring the elongated show to an end, noting, “We can’t keep adding everything that happens to us.” It’s a brilliant insight, though it’s hard not to wish it had occurred to him about half an hour earlier.

Then again, I’m hardly in a position to throw that particular stone. It’s now been days since I saw the show, and I can’t find a way to finish this review, which already has dragged on for way too long.

Should I mention that, while watching the show, I kept thinking Zimmerman was playing Susan because she reminded me so much of the short-lived Seinfeld character of the same name? No, chances are no one else will make the connection, and really, who cares?

I guess I should just finish by addressing the all-important question: Will you enjoy the show? Maybe, maybe not. The creators themselves admit it won’t appeal to everyone, declaring in the finale that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth-favorite thing.”

It should be obvious by now that [title of show] isn’t my favorite thing, my ninth-favorite thing or even my 90th-favorite thing. But who knows? Maybe it will be your favorite thing—at least until the second act.

CATCO is presenting an open-ended run of [title of show] in Studio Three of the Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35, $180 for a reserved table of four; a limited number of $15 student tickets will be available two hours before curtain. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.