Goodman offers pathos, humor in 'Vanya' comedy

  • Mary Beth Fisher, left, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Jordan Brown and Ross Lehman star in Goodman Theatre's highly entertaining Chicago-area premiere of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's comedy inspired by Anton Chekhov's plays.

    Mary Beth Fisher, left, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Jordan Brown and Ross Lehman star in Goodman Theatre's highly entertaining Chicago-area premiere of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's comedy inspired by Anton Chekhov's plays. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Siblings Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), left, Masha (Mary Beth Fisher) and Vanya (Ross Lehman) reflect on their middle-aged lives in director Steve Scott's production of Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Goodman Theatre.

    Siblings Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), left, Masha (Mary Beth Fisher) and Vanya (Ross Lehman) reflect on their middle-aged lives in director Steve Scott's production of Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Goodman Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Clairvoyant Cassandra (E. Fay Butler), center, shares her prophecies with Nina (Rebecca Buller) and Vanya (Ross Lehman) in Goodman Theatre's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

    Clairvoyant Cassandra (E. Fay Butler), center, shares her prophecies with Nina (Rebecca Buller) and Vanya (Ross Lehman) in Goodman Theatre's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Boy toy Spike (Jordan Brown), center, does an awkward reverse strip tease for bewildered siblings Masha (Mary Beth Fisher), left, Vanya (Ross Lehman) and Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

    Boy toy Spike (Jordan Brown), center, does an awkward reverse strip tease for bewildered siblings Masha (Mary Beth Fisher), left, Vanya (Ross Lehman) and Sonia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Posted7/2/2015 6:00 AM

You don't have to be an Anton Chekhov aficionado to appreciate Goodman Theatre's entertaining Chicago-area premiere of Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

It certainly helps, what with all the inside-Chekhov jokes peppering the 2012 comedy, but it's not necessary. Not when Durang riffs so wittily on the Russian writer's masterworks "The Seagull," "Uncle Vanya" and "The Cherry Orchard" while offering a tip of the hat to "The Three Sisters."

 

Chekhov described them mostly as comedies, although not every audience member perceives them as such. Tragicomedy might be a better description. But balancing humor and pathos -- as Durang does in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" -- poses a challenge. Fortunately for Goodman audiences, director Steve Scott and his accomplished cast are experts at walking that tightrope.

Frankly, that's what impressed me most about Scott's canny, thoughtfully directed production. Genuine poignancy underscores this Chekhovian tale about three siblings of a certain age looking back on missed opportunities and unrealized ambitions with regret and disappointment, jealousy and self-pity, and the ever-present fear that life has passed them by and they are alone. At the same time, this show is laugh-out-loud funny thanks to some delightfully zany Durang flourishes and zestful performances from the cast, especially Ross Lehman and Janet Ulrich Brooks who play middle-aged siblings who never left the nest.

We meet 57-year-old Vanya (a nicely vulnerable Lehman) drinking his morning coffee in his pajamas in the sunroom of his family's comfortably furnished Pennsylvania farmhouse -- a lovely, homey set by Charlie Corcoran -- that Chekhov fans will no doubt recognize. He's joined by the perpetually glum Sonia (the ever-authentic Brooks), his 52-year-old sister who, like Vanya and their absent sibling Masha, was named after Chekhov characters by their academic parents whose passion was community theater. Neither the closeted Vanya nor the unhappily unmarried Sonia -- both of whom spent years caring for their parents -- ever left the house where they grew up. At this point, it's unlikely they ever will.

"Our lives are over, aren't they?" asks Sonia.

"Yes, I think so," responds the resigned Vanya.

Their peculiar domesticity is upended by Masha (the razor-sharp Mary Beth Fisher as narcissism personified), a middle-aged actress with five ex-husbands and a flagging career who for years has paid the bills. She arrives with her much younger boyfriend, a dim but chiseled aspiring actor named Spike, played by the funny Jordan Brown with gusto and a surprisingly endearing, muscle-headed charm. Masha informs Vanya and Sonia she intends to sell the house she never visits and can no longer afford, igniting a long-simmering conflict familiar to anyone who's argued with siblings over the care of aging parents.

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That's the extent of the plot. But there are characters beyond the titular quartet. E. Faye Butler plays Haitian cleaning lady Cassandra, a seer right out of Greek tragedy who foretells the future and dabbles in voodoo. The always-galvanizing Butler delivers a performance that is both broadly comic and compassionate. Urging her unhappy employers to "beware of thinking too much," Cassandra is the voice of reason and caution. "If I hear gunshots, I'm coming up," she tells Vanya and Sonia in a not-so-subtle reference to Chekhov's rule that if a loaded gun makes an appearance in the first act, it should be fired by the end of the play.

Lastly there is aspiring actress Nina (the guileless and endearing Rebecca Buller), who admires Masha and befriends Vanya. She offers to read his play, just like her "Seagull" namesake.

Some of the production's best moments come courtesy of Lehman and Brooks, whose performances reflect an impeccable comic timing. Their scenes together are something special. Better still is the depth they bring to these characters. Brooks (who does a first-rate Maggie Smith imitation) has an inherent honesty evidenced by her affecting, gently amusing second act monologue in which spinster Sonia receives what is likely her first dinner invitation from a man.

As for Lehman, his showstopping rant late in the second act -- lamenting the absence of shared experience and denouncing contemporary culture in all its crass carelessness -- is a tour-de-force by an actor in peak form.

The outburst itself is a bit contrived and its content not quite warranted, but Lehman's wry, impassioned delivery is entirely genuine. He does Durang and Chekhov proud.

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