In the second act of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the Christopher Durang comedy that opened last weekend at the Guthrie, Vanya launches into a mesmerizing lament for the past and rant about the present. I wish I’d timed it. I wish I’d broken the rules and recorded it. I want to go back and hear it again.
As most of the title suggests, V&S&M&S is a Chekhov-flavored piece in which modern characters give voice to, or merely make mention of, the Russian playwright’s themes and insights – sometimes in seemingly straight homage, and other times with nothing more than a clever turn of dialogue. On the night I was there, some members of the audience seemed hyper-alert for Chekhov references, fidgeting and whispering at every mention of cherry trees or waterfowl.
But the play is much more, and much funnier, than a literary scavenger hunt, especially with a rock-solid cast under the direction of Joel Sass. No one takes a false step. Two middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road siblings (Vanya and Sonia) enjoy a quiet life in the country house where they grew up, until their movie-star sister (Masha) blasts through the door. She owns the house and has decided to sell it. “I suppose I’m monstrous,” she admits, “but loveable-monstrous, I hope.”
Three other characters come and go: Masha’s much younger boyfriend, Spike, who performs most of his scenes in his underwear and whose pectoral muscles move to a choreography all their own; the also much younger Nina, an aspiring actress who is drawn to Masha like a moth to a Broadway marquee, and the ageless Casandra, a cleaning lady given to spasms of prophecy.
Every member of the cast turns in a fine performance, but the one who echoed in my head on the drive home was Charles Janasz as Vanya. His cantata on the theme, “I’m worried about the future; I miss the past,” stampedes from Howdy Doody to Senor Wences, from Davy Crockett to Old Yeller, from Ozzie and Harriett to Pussy Galore: “Nowadays,” he grouses, “3-year-olds get the joke.” The monologue goes on and on, leaving the audience as breathless as the actor who performs it.
If you like, you can study up on Chekhov before you see the play, to make sure none of the references go over your head. Much better, though, to simply enjoy this show for the charming, demented comedy it is. It runs through Aug. 31.