DF Review — Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Bucks County Playhouse (August 2014)

Christopher Durang and Deidre Madigan in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Bucks County Playhouse)

Hooray for homecomings! In this case, we have two. Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a sweet-sad comic riff on Anton Chekhov, is now on stage at Bucks County Playhouse, just a few miles from Princeton, where the play had its premiere in 2012. (In between, it went to Broadway, won the Tony, and became a regional theatre favorite.)

It’s also a homecoming for Durang himself. The writer and actor and longtime local resident is – for the first (and perhaps only) time – now starring in his own play. It’s a major coup for the Bucks County Playhouse, and it pays off handsomely.

This was my third Vanya and Sonia – previously, I saw the original production at McCarter, and another at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. I admit to some mixed feelings about the piece. Durang’s complex mix of styles here – farce, sentiment, absurdism, and more – doesn’t completely cohere, and I miss the more corrosive humor that he’s better known for.

But I understand why the softer contours and gentler charm of Vanya and Sonia have made it such a crowd-pleaser. And in many way, this production makes the best case I’ve seen yet for Durang’s script.

Some of this is due to director Sheryl Kaller, who pitches the tone at a midpoint, effectively making it mostly a boulevard comedy tinged with something darker. It’s the most homogenous approach I’ve seen, and I think the most appropriate.

There’s also much to enjoy in the ensemble cast, including Marilu Henner, clearly having the time of her life as the self-centered actress, Masha. Deirdre Madigan appears here as Sonia, which she also played at Philadelphia Theatre Company. I thought she was by a significant margin the best thing in that production – if anything, she’s even better here.
Perhaps predictably, it’s Durang himself who is the revelation. He is perfectly cast as the befuddled, loveable-but-with-an-edge Vanya, and it’s a joy to hear him navigate his own comic cadences so masterfully.

Durang is a fine actor, but a laid-back one. He doesn’t have the energy or virtuosity that David Hyde Pierce brought to the part.   Instead, he has an honesty and simplicity that may be more right. Here, Vanya’s extended final monologue – a lament about contemporary culture’s obsession with technology – is less a blockbuster star-turn than an elegy, and the specifics of the speech really spring to life.   When Durang gets whoops and applause at the end of the speech – and he does – they’re in part a reward for his performance. But even more valuable, they’re about what he said.

In producing Vanya and Sonia, Bucks County Playhouse has pulled off something genuinely unique. Here is a current favorite play, staged in absolutely the right place (it’s set in Bucks County, and the playhouse itself is the ideal venue), and starring its author, whose individual performance is something to treasure.

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