Chicago Theatre Review
Beware Hootie Pie!
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Citadel 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, a parody of Chekhov’s comedies. It features a trio of middle-aged siblings, all, like Chekov characters, suffering from self-doubt and self-pity. These often hilarious individuals, whose educated parents named them after characters in Chekhov’s plays, are beginning to realize that the urge to travel down the road not taken is becoming less possible. Setting his contemporary play in a charming country house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang also borrows a Chekhov-like locale.
Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia have devoted their entire lives to caring for their aging parents. Now, following their deaths, the two are all alone. The siblings have settled into a daily routine that’s interrupted only by the weekly arrival of Cassandra, their clairvoyant cleaning lady. Every so often their famous, movie star sister Masha drops by to say hello, pay the bills and quarrel. Otherwise Vanya and Sonia’s days consist of coffee in the breakfast room while waiting for the blue heron to visit the pond outside their window. On this particular summer day, the pessimistic pair are having their morning mocha when Cassandra bursts into the house. It’s not her regular 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 she feels Vanya and Sonia need to know about and avoid.
Then Masha unexpectedly descends upon their home for a weekend visit, with her new, handsome, 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 the everyday life of an average family. An unexpected event jars them out of their complacency; changes takes place and ultimately spirals everyone toward a new reality. In Durang’s comedy, however, there are a lot more laughs as the playwright offers a happier, more hopeful conclusion than Chekov that hits the spot. Played upon Sandie Bacon’s lovely set, director Mark E. Lococo has guided his production from its quirky opening through a tense social event that sparks new hopes. As the play progresses his characters offer new revelations and unexpected information that results in a happy ending.
Mr. Lococo, a most insightful, welcome guest director (“Other Desert Cities,” “Educating Rita”), has assembled a talented ensemble to tell Durang’s story. The gentle, charming and appealing Billy Minshall plays Vanya, the eldest member of this somewhat dysfunctional family. A caring, responsible, sensible middle-aged man, who’s been keeping his gay inclinations under wrap, Minshall’s Vanya is the glue that holds everyone else together. One of the highlights of his performance is his character’s ten-minute tirade lamenting the decline of the baby boomers’ comfortable old way of life and the hostile takeover of the computer generation. Soft-spoken and likable, Minshall inhabits this role like a well-worn glove.
Susie Steinmeyer, so brilliant in Citadel’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” is very good here as Masha. Playing this self-absorbed film actress who, despite five failed marriages, only wants to be loved, Ms. Steinmeyer plays an individual who truly believes that all the world is a stage. This actress resists the impulse to overplay her hand and thus makes Masha an easily accessible character, despite her cinematic fame. Masha’s obsessed with not playing 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.Steinmeyer plays this role with a comfortable naturalness that sheds light on what it means to be a celebrity.
Judy Lea Steele, who charmed Citadel audiences in “Other Desert Cities,” creates another exciting, larger-than-life characterization as Cassandra. Using her personality and booming voice to its full potential, Ms. Steele 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. Colin Michael Morgan, whose work has been enjoyed at Chicago Shakespeare, Northlight and other venues around the Windy City, is a visual and verbal treat in this production. As Spike, Mr. Morgan is very funny as the young 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 else, except with what they’re able to do for him. Always shedding his clothes, the buff actor constantly flexes his pecs and shows off an underwear-clad booty. From his self-centered existence, Spike offers many laughs in this production. As Nina, Lizzie Schwarzrock 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 each 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. Schwarzrock accomplishes this in her portrayal of what might be a throw-away character in lesser productions.
However, Ellen Phelps, that wonderful actress who continually impresses Citadel audiences in productions like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Other Desert Cities,” emerges as the star of this show. Ms. Phelps 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 empathizes with this unhappy woman who, like everyone, only wants to be cared for 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. Phelps’ performance is an insightful monologue, a realistic telephone conversation in Act II, that marks the character’s turning point. In it, the actress skillfully paints a canvas of emotion in one artful stroke that won’t soon be forgotten. And when Ms. Phelps enters, dressed for her first party in 20 years, dazzling in a sequined gown and a rhinestone tiara, 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, Spring 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 continually inspires new 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 our lives hostage. 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. Mark E. Lococo’s production concludes one of Citadel’s finest seasons, making this theatre company one of Chicagoland’s most reliable entertainment choices.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 29-May 28 by Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available at the box office on performance nights, by calling 847-735-8554, ext. 1, or by going to www.CitadelTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.