A Luminous Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Barker Playhouse

mashaWhether by divine plan or just cosmic joke, the local theater stars have aligned this January to offer audiences the perfect companion piece to The Gamm Theatre’s much lauded new adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. This “super moon” of theatrical events comes in the form of a wonderfully staged and phenomenally acted production of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award winning script Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Barker Playhouse.

Christopher Durang, Yale School of Drama grad, cohort of Sigourney Weaver, sometime actor and full time bon vivant, made his indelible mark on the Broadway theater world in the ’80s with such comic hits as The Marriage of Better and Boo, Baby with the Bathwater and Betty’s Summer Vacation. Proving himself to be a master craftsman of dark, absurdist comedy with a bent for twisted social commentary, his plays soon became mainstays of regional theater seasons and his uniquely drawn characters the stuff that audition monologue dreams are made of.

When we first meet 50-something sibling Vanya (Roger Lemlin) and Sonia (Sharon Carpentier), the duo is enjoying their daily ritual of morning coffee in their well-appointed Bucks County, Penn, home. Actually, “enjoying” is the wrong word – “enduring” is more to the point for these two. Long suffering (and long-single) Sonia has spent her life caring for their now-deceased parents. Jobless, hopeless and dogged by regret, Sonia and Vanya spend their days in their childhood home dwelling on lost chances, and complaining bitterly about what could have been. Sounds fun, eh?

Don’t fret, what follows is a fast-paced evening full of snappy dialogue, witty comebacks and many, many belly laughs. Durang has a lot of fun setting up the audiences’ expectations – characters and situations from Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard abound – but the playwright then takes them by the virtual tail, douses them in pop-culture references and then lights them on fire in order to further his insatiable sense of humor.

Carpentier inhabits Sonia with the requisite mix of cynicism, wide-eyed romantic longing and paralyzing self-doubt. Lemlin’s Vanya is a mild-mannered foil countering Sonia’s outpouring of self-doubt with under-played volleys of snarky asides and clever counterpoints. Their only other companion is a cleaning woman, Cassandra (nicely played by Becky Minard with a mix of new-age mysticism and old-school snark), who is prone to dramatic pronouncements of doom and prophetic warnings that no one chooses to hear.

Their “mourning” ritual over coffee is soon disrupted by the sudden arrival of their glamorous and successful sister Masha (played to the hilt with dramatic perfection by Elizabeth R. Messier) with her much younger boyfriend Spike in tow. Masha is an actress of superstar proportions, known for her highly successful Sexy Killer flicks, but now five marriages later with no big roles in sight, she has returned home in a whirlwind of self-absorbed drama. Young actor Spike is riding Masha’s coattails for as long as the stunningly dim-witted stud deems necessary and Nick Autiello inhabits the role with glee and spot-on comic timing.

Masha has returned home in order to sell the family home, show off her young boyfriend and attend an influential neighbor’s costume party dressed as Snow White – just not quite in that order. With the introduction of a fetching young neighbor, Nina (played by a delightfully quirky Kristin Wedel McGuirk), Durang’s setup is complete and the play winds itself up into a delightful frenzy of comic fallout.

Hats off to the entire cast for expertly balancing the play’s broad comedy while also dipping into the true emotional depths of Durang’s troubled characters. I would be remiss to not give special mention to Carpentier’s show-stopping imitation of Dame Maggie Smith and Lemlin’s incredibly facile take on Durang’s impassioned plea of a monologue, lamenting the fate of our technology-laden modern world.

Director Steven Vessella oversees the proceedings with a light touch and a sure hand. Kudos to Vessella and his production team for a bang-up job across the board in terms of creating the world of the family’s Bucks County “estate.”

The Players at Barker Playhouse production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, directed by Steven Vessella and produced by Holly Applegate continues through Jan 28. Performances are Friday, January 26 and Saturday, January 27 at 7:30pm and Sunday January 28 at 2pm. Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, PVD. Reserve by phone at 401-273-0590 or email at players1909@gmail.com.

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