If we all took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about. And without Chekhov, we would not have the luxury of enjoying the hilarious comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Don’t be fooled by the Russian names in the title. This play, although inspired loosely by Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” certainly will not be read in any literature classes with “War and Peace” or “Crime and Punishment.” Audience members expecting a dark, depressing performance set in the chilly Siberian tundra should be warned: This production will have you rolling with laughter throughout the entire night.
The humor in “Vanya” relies on the personal interactions among a neurotic trio of siblings and a variety of their acquaintances, each with his or her own unique personality.
Masha, a glamorous but middle-aged movie star, returns home to Pennsylvania to her brother Vanya and sister Sonia. She brings in tow a much younger man, Spike. Vanya and Sonia, a pair of homebodies, worry that they have not achieved anything with their boring lives. Meanwhile, Masha anguishes over her waning career, despite the fame and fortune she’s accumulated. Everyone’s insecurities lead to a never-ending series of fights filled with witty one-liners, passive-aggressive commentary and outright insults.
From slapstick comedy to great literary references, there is enough variety of jokes to satisfy everyone’s sense of humor. While the play is filled with references to Greek tragedy, the epics of Homer and, of course, to the works of Chekhov himself, it also incorporates lowbrow comedic elements — for instance, one scene features what the characters dub a “reverse striptease.”
Moreover, the supporting characters add colorful personalities to the delightful dynamics of the production. Vanya and Sonia’s cleaning lady Cassandra is a voodoo-practicing psychic whose prophecies are never believed until they actually occur, alluding to the Cassandra from Greek mythology. Nina is a crazy fangirl and aspiring actress, infatuated with Masha yet ungifted in terms of her own acting ability.
Between the first and second acts, the characters seem to have mostly resolved their conflicts. But when they all go to a costume ball dressed as characters from “Snow White,” even deeper problems are revealed.
Despite all the comedic elements, “Vanya” is also filled with moments of sincere commentary, discussions ranging from what actually makes us happy to the authenticity of the personalities we display. The play conveys feelings we commonly have but are not quite able to articulate ourselves. The realistic portrayal of interpersonal, complicated relationships provides the driving behind the production’s sophistication and circumspection.
“Vanya” walks the fine line of not taking itself seriously while also being earnestly serious. Many questions are presented throughout the performance. What emotional states and material things do you attribute to happiness? What makes you envious of other people? Are you actually being yourself when you’re with your friends, or is it just an act?
Additionally, the play makes uniquely self-aware observations about theater, the lives of actors, scriptwriting and many more aspects of producing and completing a theatrical production. It’s pretty meta.
You do not have to know all the historical or literary references to think that this play is funny. You do not have to know all the current cultural mainstream references to have a great time. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” has a wide appeal. You may leave more satisfied with your current situation, questioning whether the grass really is that much greener on the other side.
The characters have to survive a roller coaster of tumultuous emotions, but the audience can simply sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.