Farce works best when everybody has something to lust after. And, for sure, the half-dozen needy souls in Christopher Durang’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, now at the Old Globe, fill that bill.
Well, Cassandra, the housekeeper, is mostly an enabler. Her goal is to prod the plot out of chaos and into peace. But, since she’s personally invested in that result, she qualifies as another striver.
Note the fancy names. The first three title siblings in this sylvan Bucks County retreat (think fringe Rancho Santa Fe) are the offspring of classical scholars with a sense of whimsy. Vanya and Sonia have long since succumbed to the built-in Chekhovian inertia and spend their days mourning their lost lives. Masha, veteran of five marriages and a franchise-full of hit films as a nymphomaniac serial killer, parachutes in from Hollywood, leading her ridiculously gorgeous boy-toy; a hunk renamed “Spike” by people with agendas from a less classical period.
The occasion is a neighbor’s costume party. The crisis is the decision of Masha, the only solvent member of the family, to sell the old homestead. Cassandra, channeling her Homeric namesake, sees all and moves to fix all, including tuna fish sandwiches for the lunch that’s really outside her duties but…
Since this is farce, the issue of what everybody will wear to the party looms as large as selling the house. Larger, in fact, since it comes first. Masha’s costume concept is classic Disney Snow White with Spike as Prince Charming and everybody else as assorted dwarves. There’s resistance in the ranks as the plots lurches forward towards intermission but the second act is all cathartic resolution and Chekhov himself might have shrugged and accepted the ending. (Maybe not Homer, but…)
Durang, a clever devil with nothing to prove, doesn’t bother with tightening every nut and bolt on this one. He assumes at least a passing knowledge in his audience of both theatre classics and pop memes. In casually contrasting stereotypes from different eras, he finds the contemporary representatives more in service of irony, less overtly romantic but just as needy. All have their patches of petulance but these don’t last long. There’s a genial tolerance that seems to settle over the scene and lead everybody to better places.
Spike, played with smug charm and aggressive pectoral muscles by Tyler Lansing Weaks, finds that being nice to people is both easy and rewarding. Haneefah Wood gets to rummage in Greek chorus excess and voodoo boogie as an irrepressible Cassandra and Allison Layman is all ethereal naiveté as the pale virgin from next door, named, appropriately, Nina.
But it’s those siblings who get the author’s goodies. Candy Buckley drapes her lanky frame all over center stage as she copes with the ennui of fame’s flattening curve. In her Snow White
outfit, she’s mistaken for Norma Desmond or a Hummel figurine.
Martin Moran makes the passive and vaguely gay Vanya a cuddly lapdog harmlessly writing artistic plays until he erupts into a frenzied screed of desperate nostalgia that pounds everybody into silence.
As the ugly ducking who may have found her late bloom, Marcia DeBonis nearly stops the show in her
poignant side of a telephone conversation with a fellow she met at the party. It’s nicely written but it pays off so handsomely because of the actress’s careful building of her sad-sack character. And it becomes one of those rare moments in the theatre when the audience is genuinely (and audibly) rooting for the right outcome.
The late Nicholas Martin, a Globe favorite, staged this play for Broadway and Jessica Stone’s direction here is based on Martin’s work. The result is admirably seamless and most satisfactory, a blissful gambol through the fields of farce.
Except for an oddly unfinished overhang above center stage, David Korins’ set is a detailed delight, dappled comfortably by David Weiner’s lighting. Gabriel Berry is to be congratulated for the period Snow White outfits.