Los Angeles Theater Review: VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Mark Taper Forum)

by Tony Frankel on February 14, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


The comical but frothy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike arrives at the Taper this week, but instead of a delectable meal, Christopher Durang’s play takes dollops of ingredients from Chekhov’s plays and wheels out a dessert cart consisting of flavorful characters and funny dialogue with no intention whatsoever to satiate the soul—indicated by Mark Bennett’s chirpy interlude music. For a play that loosely constructs itself around Chekhovian references, it’s a wonder that Durang doesn’t strive for the Russian master’s technique of weaving substantial fare within a comedy.

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.Vanya (Mark Blum) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen, a master of bipolar antics) are withdrawn middle-aged siblings who reside in a gorgeous Bucks County, PA farm house. Sister and movie star Masha (Christine Ebersole), who bankrolls the sumptuous digs, arrives with twenty-something boy toy and wannabe movie-star Spike (the deliriously dumbed-down and delightful David Hull). Masha’s motives will soon be unveiled, but the highly entertaining Act I is merely a lead-up to a neighbor’s costume party. It’s no small feat to write such humorous material, and Durang is to be commended. I’m convinced that his Tony Award for Best Play came courtesy of making us laugh: While certainly well-constructed, the hilarious hi-jinks frankly go nowhere in Act II. Nielsen is given a touching phone conversation with someone she met at the party, and Blum delivers the rituals of the old days with tour-de-force rapidity, but these terrific monologues are entities unto themselves; they go down as easy as meatless lasagna and end up as the proverbial Chinese food, leaving us hungry for more.

Kristine Nelson, Mark Blum, Christine Ebersole, David Hull, and Liesel Allen Yeager in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.I concur with my colleague Dmitry Zvonkov, who stated of the Broadway outing, “No one is ever endangered in Mr. Durang’s creation, dramatic possibilities are not explored, potentially compelling storylines aren’t pursued, and conflicts are resolved without much hassle.” Ultimately, the fundamental references—all three siblings are named for Chekhov characters by their community theater-loving parents—are only intended to be a pastry shell for the creamy humor. The warnings of an omniscient cleaning lady (Shalita Grant) germinate as many laughs as the psychic Helga Ten Dorp in Deathtrap, but the character has no arc. Likewise a pretty young neighbor and aspiring actress (Liesel Allen Yeager) who refers to Vanya as, you guessed it, Uncle Vanya.

Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole, and David Hull in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.And for those who have seen the Broadway production and are rightfully on the fence about seeing it again, I daresay that Christine Ebersole alone is worth the trip. She is among America’s top-notch comediennes, deftly balancing pathos, zaniness, vulnerability, and outlandishness with spot-on dead pan comic timing—we also get a moment to soak in her glorious vocals via her Snow White façade. Indeed, for anyone who is so desperate for belly laughs in the theater that we’re willing to lick the jokes off of Durang’s boots (that would include me), this is the production to see, magnified as it is by David Korins’ glorious set. In addition, original star David Hyde Pierce is recreating Nicholas Martin’s snappy direction. V&S&M&S is hitting the regional circuit (Berkeley Rep, Old Globe, et al), and will soon begin making the community theater rounds FOREVER; any less-than-stellar cast could easily pop the air out of this fluffy cake, leaving a pile of crunchy sugar, tasteless flour, and undercooked eggs on the stage.

David Hull and Kristine Nielsen in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.

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photos by Craig Schwartz

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.
scheduled to end on March 9, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 628-2772
or visit Center Theatre Group

{ 1 comment }

Dmitry Zvonkov February 23, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Admirable review. Yes Yes Yes.

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