by Christopher Durang
Directed by Don Stephenson
Starring Mark Nelson, Michelle Pawk and Caroline McCormick
Paper Mill Playhouse

Reviewed by David Spencer

Christopher Durang’s modern-day Chekhovian pastiche, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (heretofore V&S&M&S), has re-emerged at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn NJ. To repeat some of what I wrote in my initial review:

                  While Durang’s play on aggregate doesn’t “knock it out of the park,” it’s pleasant enough company for being an affectionate send-up; and enough of a play unto itself not to be so hollow as a mere send-up. The play, set in a rambling Bucks County farmhouse offers amusing spins some of the standard Chekhov archetypes. First and foremost there’s the central couple who have no other existence but service to the house, 50+ brother and sister Vanya—the sober, bemused foil to eccentricity; a gay straight-man, if you will (Mark Nelson) and manic-depressive Sonia, who has no relationships other than with Vanya and “no life” (Michelle Pawk). They are visited by their sister, the phenomenally self-absorbed film star Masha (Caroline McCormick) who controls the purse strings and can determine the fate of the house and its inhabitants; and she arrives with her new, twentyish boy-toy, punkish star-on-the-rise Spike (Phillipe Bowgen). There’s also a voodoo-practising house servant, Cassandra (Gina Daniels) and a convenient ingénue next door to liven things up: Nina (Jamie Ann Romero).

                  The play rambles rather like the house and in its self-referential anachronism strains its own illusion; for example, Vanya and Sonia are aware of Chekhov because they have been named by their (now-deceased) parents for Chekhov characters. But that also gives Durang license to move away from any obligation to be wholly Chekhovian, and sometimes that works too.

                  Though featuring an entirely different cast—none of whom is beholden to his or her counterpart in the original NY company—the production’s entirely different director, Don Stephenson, may be somewhat beholden to his “predecessor,” Nicholas Martin…but if not, he’s keyed into the same sensibility—greatly enabled by his having the same set design (David Korins) to work with. It’s really more like watching an A+ sert of replacements or an A+ national company than a new iteration. So on aggregate, it’s pretty much the same experience as it was in NY.

                  And there’s one thing that’s better: Ms. McCormick’s Masha. Whereas I’d thought the role’s originator, Sigourney Weaver, affected a portrait of self-absorbed vacuity that was a comment on self-absorbed vacuity—full of poses and indicative “winks” to underscore the joke, making you always aware of an actress at work—Ms. McCormick gives it a far more genuine spin; vacuous her Masha may seem, but she hasn’t been formed in a vacuum; there’s a real sibling connection, and glimpses of her real self at war with her self-protective persona.

                  All of which adds up to a good thing. If you care to see the play again, you’ll be happy at how well it holds it shape and tone, even as all new folks have at it; and if this will be your first time, you can be content that, whatever you may think of it, you’re seeing it performed about as well as it can be. Which is very well indeed.

                (Alas, my own show's obligations made this upload too late to benefit the Paper Mill run, which has closed since I drafted the review above. But as it's a production rife for remounting, I leave it as a record of what may yet appear elsewhere.)

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