Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies. Indeed there are very funny characters like Masha in THE SEAGULL who wears her depression like an oversized Russian greatcoat that threatens to consume her whole. Yet the overwhelming sadness of his characters’ wasted lives and crushed ambitions seems so tragic (at least it does to us Americans-maybe not to Russians)—and, surprise, surprise, it turns out, it’s so ripe for parody.
Playwrights are lining up left and right to borrow Chekhov’s characters for their spoofs. This last season I saw three untouched (up) Chekhov productions and two out and out spoofs. Aaron Posner’s STUPID F***ING BIRD lifted THE SEAGULL to hilarious heights at the Apollinaire Theatre last season and now Christopher Durang’s Tony winning VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (at the Huntington Theatre through Feb. 1st) crams that SEAGULL, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, UNCLE VANYA and those THREE SISTERS, not to mention a refugee from THE ORESTEIA into one outrageous send-up.
The poor creatures: Durang takes no prisoners with his guerrilla style of comedy: He keeps you laughing so hard at the sheer absurdity of the mash-up that you’re not thinking very deeply about the play. In fact, the structure of the piece works its way sideways at best. Durang embraces the set-up and the knock down of physical comedy but he interrupts the form with an extended bit of phone business à la Bob Newhart and a soliloquy right out of Seinfeld’s stand-up routines. Mind you, it all works because it is amusing, just not very weighty.
Half the battle is finding comic actors who can make the wacky dialogue fly. Director Jessica Stone has a game cast with several standouts. Marcia DeBonis has the advantage of playing a three dimensional character, someone we can care about, where the rest of the characters are there to put over the comedy, not that DeBonis isn’t a master comedienne.
Sonia laments that she’s fifty-two and hasn’t had a date in decades. If that’s not pathetic enough, she may have to leave behind her clump of ten cherry trees (which she of course calls her “orchard”). The audience adored DeBonis’ sad sack, “incipient bipolar” sister, so much so that they gasped when it looked like she would turn down an opportunity… and they cheered when she reconsidered.
Haneefah Wood hits her dialogue out of the park as the prophetess/housekeeper named Cassandra (because it’s quite delicious to foresee the future, have no one believe you, and be vindicated in seconds flat). She celebrates her prescient gifts with a whoop and a triumphant semi-backbend that kept us in stitches…no matter how many times she did it.
Martin Moran adroitly delivers the rambling paean to the postage stamp and to our “shared national past” (before electronic devices destroyed it). It’s the money shot in the play and the scene which brought home the Tony.