Last week I got a seat for the hottest ticket in town: Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Richard E.T. White for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This past summer, Durang won his first Tony for this play, and it’s easy to see why: It is ambitious and clever and attention sustaining and hilarious! I don’t remember the last time I actually doubled over with laughter, pounding my fist on my thigh for good measure as the lines and laughs built and built.
The play clearly begins with Chekhov, given the character’s names and personalities, the basic situation (the aging, lonely Vanya and Sonia stuck on the old homestead, their actress sister Masha making a rare visit and threatening to sell it, as well as the cherry orchard that only Sonia has noticed), even a few of the lines. Then there’s Nina, the would-be young actress who wanders in from the house next door and The Seagull. Durang throws in lots of pop-cultural references, too, from Ingmar Bergman to Old Yeller. Then he adds Spike, Masha’s boy toy, a restless, narcissistic dim bulb who simply loves showing off his body.
When Masha wants Spike to get dressed again, he takes her instructions to “do a reverse strip tease” literally. Actor Mark Junek’s impressive physical comedy in this scene—could you slip into a pant leg while stepping onto a table?—embodies the richness of this play, for which you often feel admiration at the same time you’re laughing your head off. Every actor has been given a potentially show-stopping scene like that one. Sharon Lockwood’s Sonia comes alive when, after a couple of decades in the house, she goes to a costume party Masha has gotten them invited to. Dressed in a sequined, slit-leg gown, she unexpectedly becomes Maggie Smith in California Suite, practicing a speech accepting her first Oscar (in the movie, that is, though Smith did win one for this role, which is very Durangian).
That party, and Nina’s interest in the play Vanya has been secretly writing all these years, changes everyone’s life, even Cassandra’s, the cleaning woman whose prophesies turn out to be surprisingly accurate. Anthony Fusco’s moment comes when he notices Spike texting during Nina’s solemn portrayal of the leading role (a molecule) in “Uncle” Vanya’s play, about the aftermath of global warming. This sets Vanya off on a tirade against modern-day electronics and individual rudeness, as against the communal experience of 1950s TV shows (for one thing)—the only moment of the play that dragged a bit, for me.
It was not because Vanya, after enduring so much so quietly for so long, didn’t have his reasons for exploding. And Fusco did a fine job of ranting, as was to be expected—indeed, all the actors, including Caroline Kaplan as the adorable Nina and Lorrie Holt as the self-centered, fearful of aging Masha, were excellent. (Her moment came during her post-party meltdown. Dressed as Snow White, she had intended everyone else to be one of the Seven Dwarfs, but that did not work out as planned).
No, the rant, though it made sense for Vanya, did not make quite as much sense for the rest of us. Complaining that technology separates us from one other is nothing new, and his point that we don’t share experiences as we did when everyone watched Ozzie and Harriet lacked resonance when everyone I know was talking about the conclusion of Breaking Bad.
Also: Everyone I know who loves theater is talking about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The run has been extended, and, so far at least, there are still seats available. Oh, and every seat in the 600-seat Roda Theatre is a good one.
Through Oct. 27, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., 510.647.2949, berkeleyrep.org.