THREE SIBLINGS YEARN FOR BETTER LIVES NEAR A BIRD-HAUNTED CHERRY ORCHARD

SNAP Productions earnestly tries to make the most of a Durang comedic Chekhov-spin-off.


SNAP Productions presents Christopher Durang’s Anton Chekhov-spin-off Vanya and  Sonia and Masha and Spike. Given the play’s reputation, that makes a lot of sense. After a 2012 debut off-Broadway, it had major commercial success during its 2013 five-month run on Broadway and won a Tony for best play plus several other significant awards. Nonetheless, this production makes clear noticeable flaws. Perhaps the talents of the original cast, including Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce, made it work in spite of script weaknesses.  

Chekhov-like, complex and subtle acting would make the most sense. His plays are most often called tragi-comedies, wherein ironic humor lies under the surface. Similar performing challenges seem to be in Durang’s play, even though it is called a comedy. The local cast, directed by Daena Schweiger, takes on those challenges with sincere but limited results, eliciting warm smiles and some good laughs.

Don’t misunderstand or worry.  Many audiences shy away from things like this due to moody, psychological texts and subtexts. You need not know much or even anything about what Chekhov wrote in order to appreciate or to be entertained by Durang’s effort even though it looks as if Durang is attempting to create a Chekhov-like story and atmosphere, humorous, sure, but containing reflections on family, maturity and aging. Never fear, this doesn’t get equally somber and can stand alone.

Vanya and Sonia, in their fifties, have retained maintenance of the family home for decades, supported by their successful movie star sister Masha, who owns the house and grounds. She comes for a visit, evidently primarily because she plans to sell the property. No longer girlishly glamorous,  also in her fifties, she is accompanied by young would-be movie actor Spike, the latest in a series of lovers and husbands. A young neighbor, Nina, shows up. And a cleaning lady named Cassandra ,like the legendary Greek prophetess, is given to making dire predictions, some of what turn out to be accurate.

Vanya and Sonia reflect on their past and current unfulfilled lives. Masha reviews her career,  trying to not lament the absence of anything serious on screen or on stage.  Uni-dimensional Spike says and does nothing of significance while equally shallow Nina giggles and tries to fit in. Meanwhile Cassandra, randomly speaks of things to come while not really having much of a personal relationship with anyone. Not a sunny bunch.   Gay Vanya seems not the least bit aroused by Spike, a loss of comic possibilities.  Sonia speaks insignificant dialogue as if underscoring her claim to be more like a piece of furniture than a human and Masha comes across full of obvious star-type shallowness.

These characters need interesting, colorful, specific, well-devised definitions from the people taking the roles.  Schweiger hasn’t gotten much of that from her cast. Moreover she has allowed overplaying. Connie Lee makes Masha big and loud, a caricature, and Jodi Vaccaro’s Cassandra milks most of her movements and lines with equal vocal extremes. Such auditorium-sized performing overwhelms the small, potentially intimate playing space and sets up a tone bound to influence attempts at sincerity by Randy Vest and Moira Mangiameli as Vanya and Sonia. Those two sometimes succeed at being real albeit not very deep.  Mangiameli, in fact, shines with believable vulnerability when Sonia gets a heart-warming phone call from a previously unknown admirer. Kevin Gibbs’ version of Spike acceptably stays sweet and innocent even though that stud would more likely be a strutting, preening dope. And Jana Coburn’s Nina remains convincingly, sufficiently uncomplicated.  

Durang’s characters don’t get much development. His early scenes contain blatant, simple-minded exposition. Later he inserted a unnecessarily-overlong rant wherein Vanya, spurred by Spike’s need to stay smart-phone-connected, attacks today’s cyber addictions and laments the passing of simpler pop culture and other elements of Americana in the 1950s. Further, Vanya could not have experienced that; he would have been, at most, a pre-schooler at that time. As the play hastens to its conclusion, obvious, flimsy character transformations occur.

Ronnie Wells designed an admirable set, even with suggestions of a garden to delight audience front rows. And Wesley Pourier came up with excellent costumes, including an hilarious cod-piece for Spike’s costume party outfit.    

As for the Chekhov elements, you needn’t know them, being decorative rather than essential. Some developments do resemble parts of The Sea Gull, wherein a successful actress returns to the ancestral home and, as in a Durang scene, there is a reading/performance of a strange, quirky play in which a neighbor named Nina has a role. There’s also a character called Masha. The three siblings (i.e as in Three Sisters) disagree about a cherry orchard on the property.  Moreover, in The Cherry Orchard there is an eccentric woman servant who can do magic tricks, a possible model for Cassandra. Plus the siblings are aware of the origins of their names, given by community-theatre-active parents. A few other less salient items appear. You could find this kind of stuff amusing.

And you may also find more to enjoy, no matter what I think. In fact, you’re probably better off not thinking at all about what you see and hear. Since Broadway audiences loved this play, it certainly has the potential to delight you too. 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through December 7 at 3225 California St. Omaha. Thurs-Sat: 8 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. Dec 7: 2 p.m. Tickets: $10-15, http://www.snapproductions.com


Category: Art, Literary
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