AJC Gives “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” an A!

May 28th, 2015


By Bert Osborne – For the AJC

Penned by one of the country’s best comedic playwrights, and performed to the hilt by some of the brightest actors in town, what’s not to love about Horizon Theatre’s supremely entertaining production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”?

As deftly staged by Justin Anderson, just when you think the show might be the liveliest and funniest you’ve seen in a long time, almost miraculously, it also eventually registers as an unexpectedly insightful and emotional commentary — on family dynamics and sibling rivalry, on romanticized notions from a bygone era about personal identity and connection in a high-tech, remote-controlled age.

Besides being one of Atlanta’s most gainfully employed freelance directors, Anderson serves as associate artistic director for Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre, where, following this Horizon run, “Vanya (et al.)” will return for another engagement in October. In other words: You have absolutely no excuse not to catch the show, sooner or later.

Don’t be intimidated by the play’s clever Chekhovian conceit, either. After all, you needn’t be an expert on Anton Chekhov classics to get the punch line within Durang’s title. The in-jokes are akin to icing on the cake. There’s a steady and bountiful supply of laughs to be had throughout — whether or not you’d know a small batch of cherry trees (in Durang’s case) from a “Cherry Orchard,” or the difference between pining about a blue heron (here) and a “Sea Gull.”

Unlike, yes, “Three Sisters,” Durang’s main characters are two sisters and a gay brother. Tess Malis Kincaid is at the top of her game as Masha, a superficial movie diva who turned her back on a career in “legitimate” theater for global celebrity, starring as a nymphomaniac serial killer in a franchise of blockbusters.

With a dim boy toy in tow (Edward McCreary as the studly Spike), Masha returns to her childhood home, where her brother Vanya (William S. Murphey) and adoptive sister Sonia (LaLa Cochran) have long since settled down into lonely lives of not-so-quiet desperation.

While Masha has always paid the bills, when she announces plans to sell the house, there’s often-hilarious hell to pay — also involving a psychic Hispanic housekeeper, the aptly named Cassandra (Denise Arribas), and a nubile neighbor and aspiring actress named (wait for it) Nina (Danielle Deadwyler).

The entire cast excels, but Cochran and Murphey deserve special mention. They’re comic pros both, and watching their scenes is a pure pleasure. For her part, despite many broadly drawn bits, Cochran isn’t simply making fun of the sad, self-pitying Sonia. When her conflicts with Masha come to a boil (Sonia sacrificed her own life to care for their dying parents), her feelings are real. Cochran’s loveliest moment is a phone call with a prospective date.

Murphey would seem to have the play’s least showy role. Although, like Vanya, some in the audience may be tempted to keep their focus on McCreary’s Spike in various states of undress, they’d be missing a lot of wonderfully understated reactions to him by Murphey.

But the veteran actor ultimately gets the last word — and delivers it with a passion. In his talented hands, what begins as an absurdly amusing reading of Vanya’s new existential drama finally leads to a lengthy diatribe about modern life that could bring a tear to your eye.

To be so moved in an otherwise mostly madcap comedy is something special, indeed.