In Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Anton Chekhov meets Absurdism and it’s love at first sight. From the fertile funny bone of the playwright who gave us “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” and “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” has been born this hilarious comedy that is all the better if you know your Chekhov and can catch all the references to “Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard” and, of course, the famous, if depressed, uncle referenced in the title.
He is played by the perfectly-cast (as is everybody in this show) Anthony Fusco, an American Conservatory Theater stalwart who is making his Berkeley Rep debut in the role created on Broadway by David Hyde Pierce. Vanya is a mess. After he and his sister Sonia (more about her in a minute) spent some 20 years nursing their now-deceased parents, he has hardly left the house. He has no job, no friends and speaks in a laconic manner that can only be called minimalist.
Not so his sister. Sonia kvetches about her life — or lack thereof — unceasingly. It is a joy to see the very accomplished Sharon Lockwood — usually relegated to interesting but minor roles like Juliet’s Nurse — in a lead. And she is divine, describing herself as a “wild turkey” (another “Seagull” reference), gazing out the window with her brother in hopes of seeing a blue heron who feeds on the frogs in their pond or throwing coffee cups against the wall in sheer frustration. Later, when the family goes to a costume party, she turns glamorous in blue sequins and spends the evening doing a rather creditable imitation of Maggie Smith.
The third sibling is Masha (Lorri Holt), the truly glamorous one. A movie star, she returns to the family manse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (where the playwright actually does live) with her young lover, Spike, in tow. Spike (an irrepressible Mark Junek) is high on testosterone and adrenaline and a little low on brains. He wants to be an actor but the closest he has come is a callback for a TV pilot called “Entourage II.” But Spike is gorgeous and, as he bounces around the house (quite literally) in as little clothing as possible, the strictly closeted gay man in Vanya comes creeping out.
Enter Nina (Caroline Kaplan) the young airhead from next door. Except she’s nice and sweet and young and pretty and this is not a good combination for Masha who will never again see the sunny side of 40. And Cassandra, the cleaning lady who truly lives up to her name. Cassandra is psychic and constantly warning of disaster — usually with some degree of accuracy. Heather Alicia Simms is a miracle in the role, the funniest thing in a very funny show.
So if I told you that, underneath all the laughter and raunchiness, this is a saga of loneliness and loyalty and global warming, would you believe me? Well, it all comes together in Vanya’s second-act rant about the way things used to be as opposed to the way they are in our techno-centric age. This man, who “takes self-effacement to an extreme,” lets all those repressed words and ideas out in one voluble flow that is the magnificent centerpiece of the play, as hilarious as it is sad.
Veteran director Richard E.T. White lets his remarkable cast do its thing on Kent Dorsey’s comfortable country house set (and yes, there is a small cherry orchard outside we are told), with costumes by Beaver Bauer and lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. So, what can be wrong with this “Vanya”? Well, at two-and-a-half hours it’s a little long. But that’s so Chekhov, darling.