Chicago Theatre Review
Beware Hootie Pie!
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Goodman Theatre
Christopher Durang, known for his hilarious absurdist comedies (“Beyond Therapy,” “An Actor’s Nightmare”), won both the 2013 Drama Desk and Tony Awards for this, his most recent work. Durang’s riff on the characters and themes of Anton Chekhov sparkles with sunshine and unexpected humor, yet harbors some of the Russian playwright’s darker themes. It’s not, however, the playwright insists, a parody of Chekhov’s comedies. It stars a trio of middle-aged siblings, all suffering from self-doubt and self-pity. These often hilarious characters, whose parents named them after characters in Chekhov’s plays, have come to realize that “road not taken” is becoming less and less available to them. Setting his contemporary play in a charming country house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang also borrows the kind of locale Chekhov often used in his works.
Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia have devoted their lives to caring for their aging mother and father. Now, following their parents’ deaths, the two are all alone. The siblings have settled into a daily prosaic routine that’s interrupted only by the weekly arrival of Cassandra, their Caribbean cleaning lady. Every so often Masha, their famous movie star sister, drops by to say hello, pay the bills and quarrel. Otherwise Vanya and Sonia’s days consist of modest meals, coffee in the breakfast room and waiting for the blue heron to visit the pond outside their window. On this particular summer day, the pessimistic pair are having their morning coffee when Cassandra bursts into the house. It’s not her usual cleaning day but, like her Greek namesake, she has had a confusing premonition of disaster. She shrieks, “Beware Hootie Pie!” When asked what that means, she can’t explain, just that it’s something or someone Vanya and Sonia need to avoid. Then Masha unexpectedly descends upon their home for a weekend visit, with her new, handsome and egotistical boy toy in tow. She announces that she and Spike, and by proxy her siblings, have all been invited to a costume party that night at one of the neighboring homes. Masha’s brought costumes for everyone, revolving around Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Nina (another Chekhov character reference), the pretty, young niece of their reclusive neighbor, unexpectedly shows up at the house and suddenly Vanya and Sonia’s mundane existence is turned completely upside-down.
Like Chekhov’s plays, Durang’s comedy is about a family’s everyday life. An unexpected event jars them out of their complacency; changes takes place and ultimately spirals everyone toward a new reality. In this comedy, however, there are a lot more laughs and Durang offers a satisfying, hopeful and happier conclusion than Chekhov provides in his plays. Played upon Charlie Corcoran’s gorgeous, intricately detailed set, Director Steve Scott has guided his production from a mild, commonplace opening, through a tense social event that sparks new hopes and reveals some new information that results in a warm conclusion.
Mr. Scott, one of Chicago’s finest, most insightful directors, has assembled a dream cast to tell Durang’s story. His cast overflows with talent and features four of Chicago’s powerhouse performers. The always charming and appealing Ross Lehman plays Vanya, the head of this somewhat dysfunctional household. A caring, responsible, sensible middle-aged man who’s been keeping his gay inclinations under wrap, Lehman’s Vanya is the glue that holds everyone together. One of the highlights of his performance is a ten-minute tirade lamenting the decline of the comfortable old way of life and the hostile takeover of the computer generation. Soft-spoken and totally likable, Mr. Lehman inhabits this role like a well-worn glove. The extraordinary talent that is Mary Beth Fisher, so brilliant in the Goodman’s “Luna Gale” and heartbreaking in their recent production of “The Little Foxes,” is terrific as Masha. Playing this self-absorbed film actress who, despite five failed marriages wants only to succeed at love, comes off like a piece of cake for this wonderfully talented actress. Ms. Fisher resists the impulse to overplay her hand and thus makes Masha an easily accessible character with whom most of the audience can immediately connect. Masha’s obsessed with not being ready to play older roles, accepting her advancing age gracefully and generally being liked by everyone, while still being the no-nonsense financial head of the family. Ms. Fisher plays this role with a comfortable naturalness that sheds light on what it means to be a celebrity.
E. Faye Butler, that force of nature who’s charmed Chicago audiences in shows like “Pullman Porter Blues,” “Hairspray” and “The Hot Mikado,” creates another exciting, larger-than-life characterization as Cassandra. Using that bombastic personality and booming voice to its full potential, Ms. Butler makes this hilarious character with the ability to see the future (but not the talent to convey it in a coherent manner) one of the standouts of this production. Jordan Brown, so excellent in the Goodman’s “Brigadoon” and Northlight’s “White Guy on the Bus,” is a visual and verbal treat in this production. As Spike, Mr. Brown is priceless as the Millennial airhead actor who’s love affair with himself is only interrupted by his penchant for flirtation. This kid has no time or regard for anyone around him, except what they’re able to do for him. Ever shedding his clothes, the buff Mr. Brown flexes his pecs and shows off an underwear-clad booty that’s been molded by vigilant visits to the gym. From his self-centered existence, Spike offers many laughs in this production. As Nina, Rebecca Buller is sweet, kind and the character most like her Chekhov namesake. She has career aspirations, but not at the expense of those who’ve become dear to her. She enjoys every day and everyone she meets, but she also understands, even at her tender age, how important it is to respect yourself and others and to live life to its fullest. Ms. Buller accomplishes all this in her portrayal of what might be a throw-away character in lesser productions. She ably holds her own with these other legends of the Chicago stage.
However, Janet Ulrich Brooks, that wonderful actress who continually impresses audiences in productions like TimeLine’s “The Apple Family Plays,” “All My Sons” and “A Walk in the Woods,” emerges as the star of this show. Ms. Brooks brings it all to the stage as Sonia, the sad, bi-polar adopted sister, whose life, since her parents’ death, has been monotonous, love-starved and lacking in purpose. Sonia’s peculiar mood swings, contrasted by her depressing, mournful laments, are both funny and profound. So often we see in her eyes a look that tells us that she’s entered her own reality; then, just as quickly, we observe a quiet resolve that signals her return to the world around her. The audience truly feels for this unhappy woman who, like everyone, only wants to be loved and appreciated, to have a reason for getting up each morning and to contribute something significant by the end each day. One of the highlights of Ms. Brooks’s performance is an insightful monologue, a telephone conversation in Act II, that elicits a well-deserved ovation upon its conclusion. In it, Ms. Brooks skillfully paints a canvas of emotion in one artful moment that won’t soon be forgotten. And when Ms. Brooks enters, dressed for her first party in 20 years, dazzling in a blue sequined gown and a rhinestone crown, the audience goes wild. Sonia has become the beautiful butterfly everyone hoped would emerge from her cocoon.
Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning play is a perfect entertainment for a warm, summer evening. While not nearly as absurd as most of his earlier works, this play is the product of an older, wiser, more mellow playwright for whom life continues to inspires ideas worth sharing. It’s lighthearted and brimming with bizarre characters and unexpected humor, yet it speaks volumes about aging, love, global warming and the way technology has taken over our lives. Durang’s play rolls with the continual ebb and flow of life’s drama and comedy. And while this isn’t exactly Chekhov, its exploration of the same themes, albeit with a contemporary hand, is just as rewarding.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 20-July 26 by the Goodman Theatre in the Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Vanya.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.