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Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Is Often Funny But More Often Infuriating

Mark Blum, left, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David HullEXPAND
Mark Blum, left, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David Hull
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Chekhov seems a ripe target for Christopher Durang's teeth. 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, last year's winner of the Tony Award for Best New Play, has a promising (at least for us theater geeks) plot: Middle-aged siblings named after Chekhov characters find their lives upset when they gather for a weekend in the old family home with their glamorous cougar sister, her boy toy, a wide-eyed budding actress named Nina, and Cassandra, their cleaning woman, who makes prophesies that are as ignored as her Greek namesake's were.
But Durang is far less cynical toward Chekhov than he has been toward other matters in other plays. In fact, Vanya and Sonia's tone is affectionate, the way one ribs his family. Maybe the gasp-worthy playwright with no censor chip is softening as he ages; at any rate, his program notes reveal an abiding fondness for the Russian.

Which is fine, at least judging by the receptive audience at the Mark Taper Forum on opening night. But I couldn't seem to still my leg, which shook restlessly throughout the second act. Pitting regretful Sonia, fading movie star Masha and gay Vanya (the "three sisters"), who are all entering the twilight of their lives, against the young and dumb - Masha's lover, Spike (David Hull), and sweet but naive neighbor Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) - is problematic. Despite some laugh-out-loud funny jokes - thanks to the excellent comedic timing of Christine Ebersole, who plays Masha - reinforcing the stereotype of a mature woman jealous of a young girl is tired.

At least the three older characters turn reflective by the play's end, with even whiny, self-pitying Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and self-absorbed, insecure Masha showing signs of growth. But Spike and Nina bounce off like imbeciles, still as one-dimensional as cardboard cutouts.

I also couldn't help rolling my eyes at the impressive-yet-unmoving-to-anyone-under-60 monologue Vanya (Mark Blum) delivers near the end of the play. Set off by Spike's texting during an informal reading of Vanya's play about the end of the Earth, Vanya launches into a "You kids get off my lawn!" rant, and no newfangled nonsense is left unscathed. Shaking his fist at emailing, texting, multitasking and playing video games, he waxes sentimental about typewriters and licking postage stamps. Yes, some of the observations will get a chuckle regardless of age (regarding The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: "Adventures? Making popcorn in the kitchen, looking for a missing sock - in retrospect, they seem medicated"), but many flew right over my head. And at a time when theaters across the country are wringing their hands over how to get a younger generation in their seats, that just feels wildly out of touch.

"I don't like change!" Vanya shouts. From another playwright, this might come as less of a surprise. But a declawed, nostalgic Durang? Perhaps that's why the last cue of the show, the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," sure did sound awfully depressing.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.; thru March 9. (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 

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Mark Taper Forum

135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

213-628-2772

www.centertheatregroup.org