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Theater Review: 'Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike' At The Taper

Katie Buenneke |
February 11, 2014 | 4:14 p.m. PST

Theater Editor

Vanya (Blum), Sonia (Nielsen), Masha (Ebersole), and Spike (Hull) at the Taper. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Vanya (Blum), Sonia (Nielsen), Masha (Ebersole), and Spike (Hull) at the Taper. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
It’s not hard to understand why “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” won the Tony Award for Best Play and a bevy of other theater awards in 2013. It’s a funny piece, and it’s full of references that theater folk will appreciate and find funny—after all, it is a play about archetypes of Chekhov characters in modern situations.

The story follows Vanya (Mark Blum), a quiet and contemplative middle-aged man who lives with his adopted sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), a woman who doesn’t believe in hiding her feelings. Their house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is owned by their tempestuous sister Masha (Christine Ebersole), a famous actress who comes to visit with her much younger (by about three decades) and rather vapid boy toy, Spike (David Hull). Also flitting through their lives are Cassandra (Shalita Grant), a prescient housekeeper, and the ingenue Nina (Liesel Allen Yaeger), their neighbor.

If you’re noticing some similarities between the character names and Anton Chekhov's works, it’s for a good reason—these personalities are heavily inspired by their Russian ancestors (a running gag includes Nina, an actress, referring to Hull’s character as “Uncle Vanya”). Unfortunately, this makes the play slightly inaccessible, particularly in the first act. There is just enough situational comedy to keep the play humorous for those without an acting background, but so much of the humor depends on an in-depth knowledge of theatrical history that it can be alienating. This is compounded by the overly-demonstrative writing, which is surprising—one would expect an established playwright like Christopher Durang to be much more adept at “showing, not telling.”

Luckily, under the direction of David Hyde Pierce (who originated the role of Vanya on Broadway, and is modeling this production after Nicholas Martin’s direction), the play really starts to hit its stride in the second act. While allusions are still bandied about by the characters, the plot’s focus notably shifts to the conflicts between the characters, and it becomes much more enjoyable (though perhaps Vanya’s lengthy tirade against technology could stand to be shortened).

Shows at the Taper are always technically adept, and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is no exception. David Korins’ set design is homey and charming, and Gabriel Berry’s costumes are amusingly on-point, especially in their recreations of Disney’s “Snow White” (about which Masha says, “Nobody knows the Walt Disney version anymore,” a perplexing statement if ever there was one).

The actors in “Vanya and Sonia” are all having tremendous fun, and their delight is infectious. The play is sure to please those with an appreciation for Anton Chekhov’s works, but may not be as entertaining for non-“theater kids.”

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” plays through March 9 at the Mark Taper Forum (135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles). Tickets are $20-$90. More information can be found at CenterTheaterGroup.org.

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Reach Theater Editor Katie here; follow her on Twitter here.



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