The first thing you see as you enter the theater for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Syracuse Stage is John Arnone’s fabulous, witty set. The presets are almost always important at Syracuse Stage, and this one is beautiful (Karin Olson’s lighting is very nice) and gently funny, if one considers the “perfect” pastoral setting for Chekhov. If I’d left the theater before the play I’d have been satisfied.
Cole Porter wrote Brush up Your Shakespeare for Kiss Me, Kate, a musical that took off from Taming of the Shrew; the audience for Christopher Durang’s play might similarly brush up their Chekhov. But whereas familiarity with The Bard enriches Porter’s material and makes it funnier, familiarity with Durang’s references only produces the occasional wry smile. Durang text-drops seemingly without purpose, except that some might enjoy counting the nods.
I suspect V+S+M+S reads well – the reader is free to conjure and associate and fill in the blanks. Because of that, the play might be more satisfying at a high school or community theater level, without the gorgeous (expensive) scenery, lighting, and sound. The Syracuse Stage director, Marcela Lorca, writes that there are many possible interpretations of this material, and she was pleased to have a cast that was all working in the same direction she was. Which seems to be Chekhov-As-Sitcom. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that I missed the laugh track. (Seriously – it would have helped.)
Larry Paulsen’s Vanya is a pitch-perfect imitation of The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons. Dori Legg’s Sonia isn’t as versed in sitcom shorthand, but she makes a game effort at her type, and has some very funny moments when she attends a costume party as Dame Maggie Smith Attending the Oscars After Playing an Evil Queen. Ben Chase is eye candy (he spends a good share of the play in just his underwear), and in some ways he’s great playing a bad actor as-he-might-be-played-in-a-sitcom (which is even worse). For the comedic levels to work (Chekhov filtered through sitcom tropes) I wished for more energy, faster dialogue, and that laugh track.
The audience I saw V+S+M+S with stood at the end, which is a regular thing now. I couldn’t figure out what they were responding to – although it wasn’t by any means a bad production, it seemed far short of spectacular. Tech-wise, there were several sloppy sound and lighting cues; I mention it to suggest that maybe it was on purpose and I couldn’t get in sync with the joke. The NY Times’ review of the Off-Broadway production suggested that V+S+M+S was a gentle inversion of Chekhov, and I can see that. The Syracuse production ended with everyone rocking to George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun (nobody has died and it really is a sweet “happily-ever-after.”) I waited in vain for the end credits to roll.