by Clark Groome
Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Philadelphia Theatre Company and the world premiere of Paula Vogel’s fascinating if somewhat over-produced “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq” made up an exciting pair of recent theater openings.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Playwright Christopher Durang has said that his play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” hereafter called “Vanya Etc.,” “is not a Chekhov parody … I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender.” What a tasty meal he’s created.
Vanya, Sonia and Masha Hardwick grew up on a lovely estate in Bucks County, the son, adopted daughter and daughter of a pair of college professors who thought it cool to name their kids after Chekhov characters. Vanya and Sonia stayed at home to take care of their aging parents, both of whom suffered from Alzheimer’s. Masha fled and went on to a lucrative is not particularly artistic film career, making a ton of money, some of which was used to keep the house and her siblings solvent.
In typical Durang fashion, the play is often side-splittingly funny and also bitingly poignant. “Vanya Etc.,” under James J. Christy’s direction, is getting a strong production at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, where it’ll be through April 20.
We spend a weekend with Vanya (Kraig Swartz), Sonia (Deidre Madigan), Masha (Grace Gonglewski) and Masha’s gorgeous if not-all-that-bright boy-toy Spike (Alex Shaw) at a time when Masha is threatening to sell the house and when Vanya and Sonia are in a deep depression about their lack of a life.
There’s a cleaning woman named Cassandra (Kianné Muschett) who keeps cautioning her bosses about everything from the Ides of March to the mysterious Hootie Pie, and a young neighbor Nina (named after a character in Chekhov’s “The Seagull”) who after being around the family for a relatively short time starts calling Vanya “Uncle.”
Sonia, who is the most down of the troupe — and brilliantly played by Deidre Madigan — is most concerned about losing her cherry orchard, if 10 cherry trees truly an orchard makes.
While knowing Chekhov helps, not knowing his great work will not diminish the pleasure you get in what is at any level a funny, if somewhat overlong, play.
“Vanya Etc.” won the 2013 Tony as best play, and Christie’s PTC production features a splendid cast, each of whom has terrific solo moments within an almost flawless ensemble.
David P. Gordon’s gorgeous set; Richard St. Clair’s costumes, or in the Spike’s case, choice of underwear; Dennis Parichy’s lighting; and Bart Fasbender’s sound all create just the right environment for the silly and sad goings-on in that Bucks County home.
For tickets call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq
In Paula Vogel’s new play, “Don Juan,” Captain Juan is home in Philadelphia after heavy combat in Iraq. Clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Juan is searching for his girlfriend Cressida. In his search he encounters flashbacks and people or fantasies that he believes to be characters ranging from Ben Franklin to Mother Teresa and MOVE’s John Africa.
It’s a frightening and often moving exploration of what happens in war and after. “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq” is a timely work, considering the long-overdue attention finally being given to PTSD and to sexual misconduct in the military.
Vogel’s play is getting a stunning world premiere production at the Wilma Theater where the intermissionless two-hour drama will be through April 20.
The intense play features a terrific cast, led by Keith J. Conallen’s Don Juan. Designers Matt Saunders (set), Vasilija Zivanic (costumes), Thom Weaver (lighting) and Daniel Perelstein (sound and original music) contribute immensely to the production.
Blanka Zizka, who collaborated with Vogel on the piece, directed “Don Juan” with great creativity. And that’s where the whole affair comes up short for me.
The impression I was left with is that the whole business was more about the stagecraft and the technical magic than it was about the issues at hand. While those important issues and some of the interesting characters never get completely lost, they are overwhelmed by the physical production, ultimately diminishing the play’s message.
For tickets call 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org.