Theatre Hall of Famer and Tony Award-winning playwright Christopher Durang of the comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (showing at the Huntington Theatre Company from Jan. 2-Feb.1) speaks the heart of us all in his play replete with pathos and eye-watering humor when he tackles loss, sexuality, intergenerational dating, unrequited love, longing and the neo-technological challenge to seemingly antiquating family values. The Play is in actuality a timely social commentary regarding the state of humanity in the age of technology; which tends to create an illusion of unity, while many of us are aggrieved with a sense of loss, isolation and yearning for something more; much like the characters in Durang’s play.
The play’s characters and more visibly their names are based on the characters created by the Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov whose works Durang studied extensively at Harvard University in addition to earning his Masters of Fine Arts in play writing from Yale University. But Chekhov’s underlying themes of loss and longing is at the core of “Vanya and Sonya…” and as a Chekhov reader myself, I can certainly attain to that premise.
“This house feels a lot like a house in [one of] Chekhov[‘s plays.]” says Durang in a phone interview with Boston Globe correspondent Patti Hartigan, referring the characters in “Vanya and Sonia…” The play begins with Vanya (Martin Moran) and Sonia (Marcia Debonis), making a big fuss over coffee with Sonia ending up smashing a cup of coffee on the floor contradicting her prima facie benevolent appearance which conceals her passive aggressive tendencies while symbolizing an imminent change which came in the form of their sister Masha (Candy Buckley) and her younger boyfriend Spike (Tyler Lansing Weaks).
Soon after, deep seated resentments, angst and emotions are revealed as Sonia, the adopted sister, confesses her feelings for Vanya and Vanya has a melt down over a “texting” incident, a transgression executed by the much younger Spike, while reading from a play he wrote. He then goes on a tirade about how things used to be and how “we used to do things together” as a people like watching the now timeworn TV shows and licking postage stamps; which all has become antiquated.
And just when I thought I was going to love everything about this play, out of nowhere appeared this neo-aunt jamima: the stereotypical sassy Black maid, whose character name I can’t or perhaps subconsciously choose not to remember, played by Haneefah Wood, a minority playing a minor role. While her character can at times spur genuine laughter from the audience, her acting at times comes off, nervous, frenzied and cartoonish and like me, the audience did not warm up to her right away as they did the major characters. She goes on and on quoting literary tragedies and mythology while producing morose psychic predictions and voodoo practices involving the unavoidable voodoo emblem, yes…the voodoo doll; which had me somewhat entertained but mostly just squirming in my seat. She is not “typical” in that she is inexplicably educated, perhaps she is a student/maid—or even more farfetched—an idiot savant of Greek mythology and Shakespearian tragedies. There were times I felt the audience was laughing with her and sometimes at her. She is the personification of the trendy ideology of the quasi-angry black woman, though it is not clear as to why she is angry; that is left to conjecture and supposition.
The most sympathetic character is Sonia who says things like “I hate my life!” and is the most bitter and melancholy of all the characters plagued by bucolic isolation, regret and self reflection regarding the decisions they made earlier in life that brought them to this point. The audience clearly rooted more for Sonia and example of this i when she turns down an invitation from a possible suitor, which she complains of wanting so much, there was a collective sign of regret until she changes her mind and you could almost hear the audience letting out a sigh of relief.
At the play’s end, we can descry a hopeful future for these characters; that their lives have already began to change for the better. If you, like the characters in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” are at a crossroads with the state of your life within this neo-technological world and yearn for something more, then see this play and perhaps see yourself and be inspired to change your life.
Jacques Fleury is the author of Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue. His collaborative CD A Lighter Shade of Blue with folk group Sweet Wednesday is available on iTunes.