Review: Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike (Mirvish)

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Mirvish presents the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike in Toronto

If you’re a fan of classical theatre, the title of Christopher Durang’s play Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike might lead you to expect an irreverent parody of a Chekhov play.  The show does heavily reference the Russian playwright’s body of work; Durang borrows the names of familiar Chekhov characters, there are references to a cherry orchard and one of the characters randomly decides to start referring to the character Vanya as “Uncle Vanya” for no particular reason.

However, even if you know nothing about Chekhov, Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is still accessible and enjoyable as a madcap comedy centred on three middle-aged siblings. Despite its highbrow reference material the show plays out in the tone and style of a network sitcom. It reminded me of the TV show Frasier in that it’s well-written and funny even if you don’t get all in-jokes and literary references.

Rather than being a direct parody of any one of Chekhov’s works, with Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, Durang riffs on themes and ideas from Chekhov’s writing and brings them into the present day. Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is Chekhov remixed.

Sonia (Fiona Reid) and Vanya (Steven Sutcliffe) are middle-aged siblings still living together in the house they grew up in and leading insular, ho-hum lives after spending much of their adulthoods tending to their ailing parents in a small, isolated Pennsylvania town. Their sister Masha (Jennifer Dale), a B-list movie star, returns for a visit with her new boy toy Spike (Luke Humphrey) in tow. Masha invites her siblings to a costume ball at a neighbour’s home before bringing up the fact that she intends to sell the house they live in.

Durang’s script is well-crafted and chock full of darkly funny moments; the siblings are so self-centred and so full of pathos and we’re essentially laughing at how dysfunctional their relationships are. The scene were Masha and Sonia start bawling over their vastly different but equally crumbling lives elicits laughter because their misery is so disproportionate and over the top.

The standout in the cast is Fiona Reid who’s an absolute gem in the role of Sonia. Reid successfully plays up Sonia’s neurotic self-pity while consistently keeping the character likeable. She deftly handles the comedic moments; Reid had the audience in stitches when Sonia channels Dame Maggie Smith for the costume party.

Hers is also the only character with any sort of genuine emotional arc. When the socially-awkward Sonia receives a phone call from a man she met at the party to ask her out on a date and she agonizes over whether or not to accept, audience members were so drawn in to the moment that some of them couldn’t help but blurt out things like “c’mon” and “do it!” When Sonia finally does accept, the audience burst into a heartfelt round of applause. You can’t fake that kind of connection with the audience.

Though it’s not as edgy or “naughty” as the publicity materials might suggest (at least if you don’t think dropping an occasional F-bomb is particularly subversive), Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is a charming romp, whether you’re a Chekhov aficionado or not.

Details:

  • Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is playing from March 14 to April 5, 2015 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto.
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m., and Wednesday, April 1, at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $19 – $99. Discounts for groups of 15 or more.
  • Tickets are available in person at any Mirvish theatre box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at Mirvish.com.

Photo of Ellen Denny, Jennifer Dale, Luke Humphrey, Fiona Reid and Steven Sutcliffe by Jeremie Andrew

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